After the startling blowout loss to the Titans the Patriots bye week afforded them the opportunity to get healthy and focus on themselves rather than an opponent for that week. Well the week paid off in a complete effort with the offense putting up 27 points and the defense holding the Jets to 13 points. Some may complain of a mediocre performance, but divisional games are tough no matter what team you play or where the game is played. A winning margin of two touchdowns is a solid win and as the saying goes “a win is a win is a win”.
Now the Patriots turn their attention to a much tougher foe as one of the popular preseason picks to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl comes to Gillette in the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings are fresh off a win over the Packers, still have one of the top defenses in the NFL. This will no doubt be a challenge for the Patriots as they look to stay unblemished at home. Perhaps most importantly though, is that every game is crucial for their chances of home-field advantage and a bye in the playoffs as the top of the AFC very tightly grouped.
The Patriots will need everyone at the top of their game on Sunday in order to get the win. Here is what to watch for as the Patriots take on the Vikings:
1. Injuries to key Viking players
Unlike the Patriots who have seemingly gotten healthy after one of their smallest injury reports of the season was released, the Vikings have key players dealing with injuries. Adam Thielen was limited, but seems likely to play, but Stefon Diggs (knee) and Xavier Rhodes (hamstring) both could be in danger to play after not practicing Wednesday. If I had to guess what the end result was for this situation, then I would venture to say that Diggs ends up playing, but Rhodes does not make the trip. Rhodes seemed to suffer a pretty severe hamstring injury at the tail end of the Packers game last Sunday night.
If the Patriots end up not seeing Rhodes on the field Sunday that would be a big help to their passing game as Rhodes is the Vikings best corner. Either way one could say that neither Diggs nor Rhodes would be one hundred percent even if they played, meaning the Patriots catch a break no matter what the result.
2. Vikings defense is elite
The Patriots have their work cut out for them this week as the Vikings defense is disciplined, multiple, tough, and athletic on all levels. They have studs at every major position and have a defensive-minded head coach that has them playing at a very high level. The Vikings rank third in total yards allowed (314.7), fifth in the NFL in passing yards per game allowed (221.1), fourth in rush yards allowed (93.6), and 10th points allowed per game (22.4).
Because of the across the board performances of the Vikings defense the Patriots really have their pick of how to attack them and either way it will require a strong effort to move the ball. The guess here is that the Patriots try to use the run game early to set the tone and gets the offensive linemen involved in the game early especially considering the fact the Vikings defensive line may very well be the strength of that defense with four guys who have the potential to be at the top five to 10 at their position annually, led by stud pass rusher Danielle Hunter, who is second in the NFL with 11.5 sacks.
Moreover to that point, Danielle Hunter usually aligns at left defensive end which would mean he would be engaged with Marcus Cannon at right tackle. This would be a great matchup to watch as Cannon is healthy and has yet to allow a sack this season. This is one to watch because it is very likely Cannon will not have any help and will need to make sure he can hold his own. This also means McDaniels could opt to run right at Hunter to tire him out and make him play a full game against the run and as a pass rusher.
3. Rex Burkhead is back?
After using their last IR- designated to return spot on Rex Burkhead and activating him to the roster there is another weapon for Tom Brady to use. It had been bandied about prior to the season that Burkhead could become a receiver and running back hybrid. With Michel having earned the lead back role in Burkhead’s absence there are two pressing questions this game could answer: who gets deactivated for Burkhead and what is his role when he gets on the field? Does Burkhead spell Michel as a between the tackles back? Or does Burkhead get more opportunities split out wide as a receiver? There are a lot of options with both Burkhead and White, but with Michel earning the lead back title and White deserving as many snaps as he can handle, the question of where they choose to use Burkhead and if he is anything more than insurance at the position is a good one to ask.
-David Albiani is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @david_albiani