Despite the fact that the Patriots are 8-3 and are undoubtedly a top-five team, they have not received nearly the public praise as other AFC favorites. Their offense is, by any measure, great. Their division is effectively sewn up. They have big names. So why are the Chiefs and Steelers getting all the love as AFC offensive juggernauts?
The most likely reason for that is the fact that their quarterback is not an MVP candidate this year. While everyone loudly asks what is wrong with Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady is quietly having a down year, himself. Granted, a down year for Brady is a banner year for most others. That said, he is still currently sitting with his worst touchdown percentage, interception percentage, adjusted yards per attempt and passer rating in five years. While completion percentages are largely up in the league this year, Brady is hanging around his career average at a paltry 65.2 percent, good for 22nd. Most curiously, Pro Football Focus also has him with a higher percentage of negatively-graded throws than Blake Bortles and Derek Carr.
Despite that “down season,” the Patriots offense is still one of the better ones in football. They are eighth in yards per game, seventh in points per game and 13th in yards per play. They have five games of at least 30 points. How is that all happening if Brady is, by his standards, under-performing a bit? One explanation is he finally has a dynamic run game. We will get to that in a second.
But a more interesting aspect of the Patriots’ offense is the diverse utilization of weapons. While no single Patriots receiver is likely to amass 1,000 yards, that does not mean they lack go-to guys. Four players have over 500 yards and a fifth has almost 400. Six different receivers have at least 25 catches. This points to Brady’s willingness to spread the ball around and Josh McDaniels’ creativity as a player-caller in using everyone at his disposal.
Now for the run game. Brady has had 1,000-yard rushers in recent years, but he has not had a running game look as dynamic as with Sony Michel and James White behind him. The rookie Michel is at 4.6 yards per carry with three 100-yard games, and he has only played in eight. He is on a 16-games pace of 1,100 yards. Plus, Michel has shown big play ability with five runs of 20-plus in those eight games. LeGarrette Blount had only seven in 2016, the most recent 1,000-yard rushing season in New England . Throw in White, the Patriots current leading receiver, and you have a dynamic backfield with home run ability.
And that brings us to the Patriots’ greatest strength: their play action game. No quarterback carries out a play fake better and no team schemes play action better. The Patriots consistently decimate opponents with play action; just watch this video of Paul Allen and Pete Bercich breaking it down. The Patriots’ offensive line is excellent at selling run on pass plays, Rob Gronkowski is as good as it gets at blocking and releasing and Brady is probably the best ever at delivering no-look balls out of play action.
That is particularly troublesome for the Vikings. While they have improved in recent weeks, the teams that torched the Vikings’ defense did so with a lot of play action and misdirection. They have a tendency to react to such plays exactly as the offense intends: go with the initial flow of the play, leaving the backside wide open. They handled such plays excellently last week against the Packers, however, so it will be interesting to see how they deal with the abundance of play action in New England Sunday.
The Vikings’ defense has not fared great against elite offenses. They have played three top-10 scoring teams in terms of points per game. Only once have they allowed fewer than 30 points, when they gave up 25 in Chicago. New England is also undefeated at home, so the prospect of shutting them down is certainly daunting. Much of it will come down to containing the run game and staying disciplined in play action. If they can do that, it will force Brady to pick apart their defense. Which, obviously, he is more than capable of doing. At least in that situation, it will force him to paper cut the Vikings to death, rather than allowing him to take easy chunk yardage.
For what it is worth, the Vikings have never beaten Brady. The only time they were even close was in 2002, in Brady’s second year as starter. Since then, he has scored 31, 28 and 30 points on Minnesota. This Vikings defense is perhaps more poised than ever to slow Brady and the Pats down, but it may take a season-best effort to make it happen.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.