The Vikings defense thumped Rodgers on Sunday night for the Border Battle W, but the negatives continue to remind the excited Purple & Gold faithful: "your team still hasn't beaten anyone with a winning record..." Will that change this Sunday with the 8-3 Pats?
As I look at this, a Vikings/Patriots match-up has been a lot like most soccer fans watching the World Cup. Every four years, they're filled with big dreams and excitement for their favorite team, only to watch them get smacked by a clearly more talented opponent. 2014 at TCF Bank Stadium, Matt Cassel throws 4 picks and Patriots cruise....2010 at Gillette, Vikings stuffed at goalline before half, Favre throws costly 2nd half pick, Patriots cruise....2006 at Metrodome, Patriots bulldoze Vikings 31-7 on Monday Night Football....2002 at Gillette, Patriots never look back from a 21-7 halftime lead. (Daunte Culpepper did outduel Drew Bledsoe in New England 21-13 back in September of 2000...so there's that. And I promise, no more soccer references...)
The Patriots have slid into the 2-spot of the AFC Playoff picture while continuing to feast on a putrid division. Our team? They're both looking up at the Bears in the North and trying to stay ahead of the Seahawks, Panthers & Redskins in the NFC Wildcard sprint. #92Noon will be talking throughout the week about ways to "beat Brady," and the following are some nuggets/takes/talkers/bits & pieces to ponder as we head into the weekend:::
1. Beating the Patriots in Foxborough? In December? No chance, right?
-Since 2009, Brady is 19-3 at home in games from December on (a couple week 17 January games included in this). There's some mystique surrounding the idea of beating the Patriots on their home turf in the late stages of the season. Peek closer, though, you'll see that 10 of those 19 Ws have come against the Jets(3), Dolphins(4) and Bills(3). Pitiful divisional opponents. Several other wins have come against the Browns, Jeff Fisher's Rams when Goff was a rookie, uncompetitive Titans & Texans, a bad Jaguars team several years ago, the Colts during their "Suck for Luck" campaign, etc....And the losses? One was to a bad Eagles team in 2015, led by Sam Bradford, a Malcolm Jenkins pick-6 and a Darren Sproles punt return score. They lost to the Bills in 2014 when Tom Brady sat out the 2nd half (Pats won the Super Bowl that year), and they lost to Kaepernick's 49ers in 2012, who themselves were an eventual Super Bowl team.
-In comparison, the Vikings are 15-8 since 2009 in home games from December on. They're 12-3 since 2012, however, and similarly to the Pats, have smashed on bad divisional opponents and struggling non-playoff squads.
-Basically, I'm saying that battling the Brady/Belichick greatness on Sunday will be one hell of a challenge, but don't be swayed by the mystique of Foxborough. Be swayed by the mystique of the best coach/QB duo in NFL history.
2. Blitzing Brady is either a tremendous idea, or a disastrous one..
-There was a stat I saw, maybe a week or two ago, that Tom Brady was the worst QB in the NFL (through 10 games in 2018) against the blitz, sporting a hideous 59.6 QB rating. Bringing extra guys to pressure a 41yr old statue has been leading to a ton of incompletions, a bunch of hits, a few sacks and a couple picks here and there, too. Brady becomes less and less mobile almost weekly and, therefore, less and less likely to escape the avalanche of oncoming defenders. I think this will be one of the most interesting things about the game and how Mike Zimmer intends to attack him.
-If the Vikings are getting pressure with the front four d-liners like they were against the Packers, then they can commit 7 guys to coverage. Sheldon Richardson & Linval Joseph can crash in on and occupy the Pats interior OL of center David Andrews, RG Shaq Mason & LG Joe Thuney. That should give either Everson Griffen or Danielle Hunter (or both) one-on-one opportunities on the outside Tackles(Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon), as the Patriots don't use TEs for blocking help as much as many other teams do. I don't want to forget about the rotational guys and the great work that both DT Tom Johnson and DE Stephen Weatherly are doing, either. Our ability to keep bringing waves of fresh bodies into the mix is why the Vikings are tied for 3rd in the NFL with 36 sacks.
-Situational blitzing with Mac Alexander out of the Nickel corner spot has worked at times (he has 3 sacks this year), and there's always the option of sending either Kendricks or Barr up the A-gap to really screw up Brady's day (although, they fake it more than the take it with that). The problem with all this? Brady diagnoses defenses better than any TV doctor and gets the ball out of his hands quicker than just about any passer in the NFL. He'll check to an outside run away from a blitzing CB/LB, he'll audible to a quick hitch route on the outside, he'll see one-on-one matchups on the boundary and fire deep, he'll hit Julian Edelman on some annoying 9-yd slant from the slot. If you're going to go after him, get there in time.
-One other note on this, too...Xavier Rhodes potentially not playing because of the "very mild" hamstring issue creates another wrinkle. You put undrafted rookie Holton Hill in a spot where he's playing press-man coverage? Or is he offering a cushion to avoid getting beat deep? Is there a safety leaning over in his direction to support so Brady doesn't exploit the inexperienced kid all day? That can affect the decision to blitz as well. You bring an extra guy on the blitz and WR Chris Hogan gets Hill turned around, suddenly it's 22yds in their favor for a first down.
-In the end, Brady has only been sacked 16 times this year, so appreciate forcing incompletions and hits as much as you would love actual sacks.
3. Their most effective offensive weapon is.....RB James White? What?
-"Big Game James?" When observing the Patriots offense, you'll immediately look at what they're able to do with a healthy Rob Gronkowski and the perpetual matchup nightmare that he is. Then you'll be impressed with the versatility and bulldog nature of Julian Edelman. After that, maybe you're curious how much of an impact Josh Gordon is making with his new lease on life in New England. Gronk has missed time but is healthy and had a touchdown last weekend, Edelman missed 4 games to start the year but is now getting the targets and production you would expect, and Gordon had 547yds/2TD in 8 games out east. But James White makes this entire offense move! While playing just 59% of offensive snaps, he has 94 targets and 67 catches as a RB(leads team in both), leads the team in receiving yards with 567 and leads in receiving scores with 6. He also has 70 carries for 300+ yards and 4 more touchdowns. The bit for the Pats has always been the revolving door at the RB position, and in 2018, it's no different. First round rookie Sony Michel gets the lion's share of carries and opportunities, but Cordarrelle is getting carries, Rex Burkhead just returned from IR and is expected to be an option, and then James White. A vast majority of rushing attempts by New England (83%) come from Brady taking snaps under center, so when you see Tom in shotgun and White is next to him, expect him to be a threat every time.
-Ultimately, we've always heard about how Belichick is the absolute best at eliminating an opponent's best option on offense. Ok, cool. Why don't we do that to James White on Sunday?
4. Soooo, who will Belichick focus on stopping?
-In the Jets game, coach Todd Bowles attempted to double cover both Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. It actually worked, until it didn't. Thielen did have an early touchdown, Latavius Murray had a couple nice rushing scores and Aldrick Robinson won a battle in the endzone as well. Thielen had 9rec for 110, Diggs had 8 for a meager 33yds...the key to that game was the 4.6/carry that Latavius was grinding out in the run game. Oh, and the four forced turnovers by the defense. Oh, and the fact that they're the Jets with a rookie QB, missing several important defenders, etc...
-Maybe Belichick will try something similar. He probably notices that the Vikings are lacking an exceptional third passing target with the lack of Kyle Rudolph utilization, Treadwell ........, Robinson only appears in spots.
-What about completely eliminating the run? I know, the Vikings are already bottom end of the league in running the ball. New England has been allowing 4.4/carry and 108/game on the ground to opponents in 2018, middle of the road ranking. Here's where I'm going with this: Vikings are 6-1 (the one loss was the Saints game) when they hand the ball off more than 20 times...and 0-3-1 when they have less than 20 rushing attempts. It's not about having an explosive, soul-crushing rush attack. In the Packers game, for example, the Vikings averaged 3.1/carry on 29 attempts for 91yd total yards. No massive 50yd dashes, but productive runs by both Latavius and Dalvin Cook that helped the Purple move chains and set up the passing game.
-I keep hearing about how "volume" and "balance" shouldn't matter with this Vikings team but it ABSOLUTELY does. In several games this season, the Vikings have failed on early runs and they just say "F it" and stop trying. They lose those games. When Kirk has to throw it 50 times, the Vikings lose time of possession, the number of turnovers go up and they lose those games. I think Belichick wants to force the Vikings to throw it 50 times, so that's another thing I'll be watching closely on Sunday.
Random Nugs ---
-Brady is 50% on third down as a passer this year...he is struggling to move the chains at times and if it's 3rd and medium or longer in distance...let the best third down defense in the NFL take over. Cousins is 64% on third down in comparison.
-In the Border Battle, Dalvin Cook scored his first TD since week 4 of 2017 against the Lions, when he got into the endzone before tearing his ACL later in the game. Dalvin is HEATING UP and needs to be fed. . I liked the creativity of mixing in several different looks in the run game against Green Bay, and it opened up space for Dalvin on that screen he took 26yds to the house. He needs 10+ carries and a handful or receptions, at the least.
-The Patriots with Brady are 91-1 at home when leading at halftime. Try to score early and often before they lock you down.
-The Vikings defense allowed 208 yards to Sam Darnold in the Jets game, and no QB has surpassed 200yds passing since....Brees had his least productive game of the year so far against the Vikes, Matthew Stafford had no hope, Mitch Trubisky threw two bad picks and Aaron Rodgers was as frustrated as I've ever seen him in a diseased year. Stopping James White & the running attack is an A-Topic as I mentioned above.
-Cordarrelle Patterson has 156yds rushing and 120yds receiving with 3 total offensive TDs with the Patriots in 2018...also has a kick return score....and also, he grabbed a guy's junk in last weekend's game against the Jets...
-Gronk caught his first TD since week 1 last Sunday against the Jets...he has missed time because he never stays healthy but looked mighty good. Dammit.
-The Patriots haven't turned the ball over in 4 straight games...3-1 record during that stretch. The ultimate example of a Belichick team that finely tunes itself as a season evolves....meanwhile, the Vikings went turnover-free for just the second time all year in the Packers game. Who blinks first on Sunday????
---There are about 5000 other unique nuggets about Tom Brady and the Patriots and 18 years of winning records and home domination and Super Bowl appearances and unbelievable stats. Not enough time to document them all here. We're gonna need a lot of #FAITH in this one.