The New England Patriots won their eighth game of the 2018 season with a 27-13 road victory last Sunday at the New York Jets. New England has once again taken control of the AFC East and also set themselves up to finish with a record of .500 or better for the 18th straight season, second in NFL history to the 21 straight seasons by the Tom Landry Era Dallas Cowboys (1965-85).
The Patriots outscored the Jets 17-3 in the second half after a tough first half saw the two teams knotted at ten apiece. New England used ten plays of 20 or more yards on Sunday including two 30+ yard rushes by rookie Sony Michel.
Michel and James White played a key role in the victory combing for 206 yards rushing on 30 carries (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted). With Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman both catching touchdown passes from Tom Brady, Brady spread the ball around to eight different receivers and threw for 283 yards against New York.
While the Jets were hardly a juggernaut on either side of the football, they were at home and had two weeks to prepare for their division rival. The Patriots face a much tougher test on Sunday as they host the Minnesota Vikings. It is just the fifth time that the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady Patriots face the Vikings.
The Patriots are 4-0 in their last four meetings against the Vikings. The Patriots won at home 24-17 in 2002, went to the Metrodome in 2006 for a 31-7 thrashing of the Vikings, defeated Minnesota 28-18 on Halloween 2010, and in 2014 defeated Mike Zimmer and the Matt Cassel led Vikings 30-7 early in the 2014 season.
This week’s game will be broadcast by FOX and can be seen locally on WFXT Channel 25 in the greater Boston area and on WNAC Fox Providence Channel 64 in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. Joe Buck will handle play-by-play duties with Troy Aikman as the color analyst. Erin Andrews will work from the sidelines.
Sunday’s game will be broadcast to a national audience on ESPN Radio. Jason Benetti will call the game with Patriots-hater and former Indianapolis Colts executive Bill Polian providing his usual biased analysis. Jeff Darlington will report form the sidelines.
Locally, the New England Patriots are on the radio on 41 stations throughout the six states in New England, New York and Florida and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback and talk radio star Scott Zolak adding his brutally honest color analysis.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on offense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.
The win against the Jets was the eighth game of the season the Patriots scored 25 or more points and they have won all eight of those games. New England is 0-3 when they fail to score more than 20 points. The Patriots’ offense that was ranked 25th in the NFL in points scored after week three is now seventh in the NFL with 307 points scored in 11 games (27.9 points per game).
Coming out of week three ranked 29th in the league on third down percentage converting on just 28.6% of their third downs, the Patriots were in the top ten but have dropped to 14th in the league converting just 39.9% of third downs for the season. Their Red Zone scoring percentage of 63.2% (24 of 358 drives) is good for 13th in the NFL.
How do the Patriots plan to maintain their offensive momentum against a Minnesota Vikings defense that has allowed the third fewest points and allowed the fewest passing touchdowns?
SHORT PASSING ATTACK:
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is at his best when he is working the short passing attack and getting rid of the football quickly. With defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen coming full-bore around the corner on Sunday, Brady is going to have to speed up the internal clock in his head and get rid of the ball.
Hunter leads the team with 11.5 sacks in 11 games. The 2015 third-round draft pick has been an impact player as a pass rusher since his rookie season but this season has ascended to a new level. He has just turned 24 years old and his match-up on the edge against Patriots left tackle Trent Brown is one to watch.
On the other side the Vikings have 31 year old Everson Griffen. Griffen missed five games due to mental health issues but his return has been a boost to the Vikings’ pass rush. With Griffen and Hunter on the edge, it frees up Sheldon Richardson (Patriots fans remember him from his time with the New York Jets) and the perennially underrated Linval Joseph.
With that front four able to generate consistent pressure, the Vikings piled up 36 sacks in their eleven games. Brady is not going to want to hold onto the ball any longer than he needs to on Sunday afternoon. Add in the effective blitz packages that head coach Mike Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards dial-up and there will be a lot of pressure on the New England offensive line.
To counteract that pressure, New England needs to get the ball out to receivers and backs quickly. Fortunately for New England, Minnesota’s All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes is questionable with a hamstring injury. He will be a game-time decision on Sunday afternoon but his absence or ineffectiveness due to injury may be an issue.
The depth at cornerback has dwindled in Minnesota with first-round draft pick Mike Hughes on injured reserve. Trae Waynes is solid but Mackensie Alexander is dinged-up and has failed to be the impact player the Vikings thought they drafted. Without Rhodes on Josh Gordon, that job would fall to Waynes and force Alexander to cover Julian Edelman. Those match-ups would favor the Patriots.
The Vikings struggled against tight ends earlier in the season and with their defense primarily in a cover-4 look, that should bode well for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels drawing up plays for Rob Gronkowski and James White to match-up with linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr. Barr’s coverage has dropped off this season and Kendricks lacks the size and strength to battle Gronkowski in coverage.
Gronkowski appeared to be rounding into form last week against the Jets making a few big grabs. With Dwayne Allen out injured, look for the Patriots to try to get Jacob Hollister up the seam to catch the Vikings keying on the wide receivers and Gronkowski for a big play.
When Brady is at his best, he is getting the ball out of his hands quickly and distributing the ball to whoever is open. Rather than locking in on his most trusted targets, Brady needs to get back to the theory of “whoever is open is my favorite receiver” and put his trust in the system. Against Minnesota’s strong pass rush and talented secondary
That is only part of the offensive game plan–the Patriots also must keep the momentum of the running game:
ESTABLISH THE RUNNING GAME:
There is no secret that the New England Patriots want to slow the Minnesota pass rush on Sunday. What better way than to make them pay every time they push up the field on early downs? The Patriots–coming off their 215 yard rushing game against the Jets–should be looking to pound the ball.
Like most teams, the Vikings struggle when opponents can run the ball on their defense. The Vikings are 0-4-1 when they allow opponents to rush for over 90 yards. The Patriots have not lost when they’ve toted the rock for 90 or more yards in 2018 going 7-0 so far.
Sony Michel has given the Patriots that lead back they so desperately need to take pressure off of Brady and the passing game. Adding Rex Burkhead from injured reserve allows the Patriots to not overwork the rookie (and James White) and have three backs fresh for the stretch run of December and January.
Michel has been fully healthy and the lead back for really only four games so far in 2018. He has rushed for 112, 98, 106 and 133 yards in those games. Keeping him healthy and fresh is a must and having Burkhead able to take over for Michael for a few series is a boon to the Patriots’ offense.
Burkhead carried the load in week one and was an integral part of the offense before his concussion/neck injury landed him on injured reserve. His ability to run the ball between the tackles combined with his advance route-running techniques allow the Patriots to disguise their intentions with Burkhead in the game. The offense should take a step forward adding him to the rotation.
Minnesota will try to shut down the New England rushing attack starting with Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson on the inside. Joseph does the dirty work inside to allow linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks and safety Harrison Smith to clean up the ball carriers.
Richardson has all the physical tools to dominate but often took plays off when not rushing the quarterback in New York. Last year in Seattle in a contract year and this year on a one-year deal, the big bodied tackle has improved his consistency as a run-stopper while continuing to generate pressure inside.
If the offensive line and fullback James Develin can open holes for the backs, the offense should be able to extend drives and keep the explosive Minnesota offense on the sidelines.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01