INSIDE SLANT: Around New England, fans have become jaded. The Pats are 8-3 and only three teams have a better record than them yet the sky is falling because the Pats did not dominate the New York Jets more on Sunday in their 27-13 win. The Pats, though, play a team on Sunday in the Minnesota Vikings that is fighting for their playoff lives. The Vikings are 6-4-1 and have had a really tough schedule this year. They have faced New Orleans, Los Angeles (on the road) Philadelphia (on the road) and they lost to Buffalo early in the season in what was the biggest upset in recent NFL history. Belichick lauded the mental toughness of the Vikings who have never given up despite some tough losses.
The Vikings, a Super Bowl pick of many (including yours truly), face the Pats this week on the road and go to Seattle next week so the Vikings must be motivated or they will be playing golf in January. The Pats are 5-0 at home this season and should be the favorite on Sunday. Their offense is as healthy as it has been all year with Shaq Mason and Rob Gronkowski (who is officially off the injury report) returning last week against the Jets. With Rex Burkhead and Sony Michel healthy, the Pats now have a strong running attack. The Pats must start strong because the Vikings will look to quiet the Gillette Stadium crowd with an offense that played well in a win over the Green Bay Packers last week. If the Pats running game can be effective, it could be a long day for the Vikings as their linebackers will likely fall for the play action fakes of Tom Brady.
SERIES HISTORY: 13th meeting. New England Patriots lead series 8-4. The Pats have won the last four meetings. The teams have never met in the playoffs. The Vikings last beat the Pats at old Foxboro Stadium in 2000 in Bill Belichick's first season as coach. That loss made the Pats 0-3. The Vikings coach that day was the late Dennis Green and Randy Moss was playing wide receiver for the Vikings.
Notes, Quotes: Bill Belichick on facing Vikings WR Adam Thielen who has 93 catches for almost 1200 yards this season. Thielen can play both in the slot and outside. "Pretty much everything. He does everything well. He's got good size. He can get to a lot of balls with his length. He has very good hands. He's quick for a taller player and so his length and the radius that he can catch the ball in is good and he has the hands to extend and catch it, but for a taller guy he's quick and he's able to create separation. "
"So, he's a tough matchup for a smaller corner in terms of size and he's a tough matchup for a bigger corner in terms of the quickness that he has. He's also a good runner after the catch so he can take a shorter pass and turn it into a sizeable gain with his size and running ability after the catch. He plays inside, he plays outside. They move him around. All of their receivers move around. He's a little different than [Stefon] Diggs but they complement each other well."
James White on the importance of the play action passing game to the Pats offense. "You have to sell the run in order for the receivers to be as wide open as they can get. The offensive line has to sell it, quarterbacks, running backs. You have to make it look exactly like the run if you want it to be successful. It takes hard work."
Vikings Coach Mike Zimmer on Cordarrelle Patterson who the Vikings drafted in the first round in 2013. The Vikings traded up with the Pats to select Patterson. "Quite honestly, they’re using him way better than we did. Cordarrelle’s a great athlete, a very, very strong runner. I think they use him in a number of different ways. I mean, it’s good to see for him. I wish we would have used him a little bit better."
BY THE NUMBERS:
3.5 - the number of sacks by Trey Flowers this season. The Pats are watching Flowers closely as they must decide in the offseason whether to give him a big contract. Flowers is a free agent at the end of the year. Flowers is stronger when he lines up against the guard than the tackle. Flowers has improved against the run and is a good technique pass rusher with his hand placement. Flowers does not have great athleticism and lacks creativity as a pass rusher. The Pats must decide whether he should be paid like Von Miller or Khalil Mack.
3 - the number of healthy running backs the Pats have available for Sunday's game against the Vikings. Rex Burkhead is eligible to return against the Vikings after being placed on injured reserve with a neck injury after the Pats loss to Detroit in Week 3. Sony Michel and James White are healthy too. The running back position has not looked better all season.
31- the number of receptions Josh Gordon has this season since the Pats acquired him from Cleveland. Gordon has shown himself to a good route runner. He caught a 17-yard pass on third and 10 last week in the second half for a big first down. Gordon also has made big plays like his 55-yard touchdown catch against Green Bay or his 55-yard catch against Chicago where he was caught from behind just before running into the end zone. He has been well worth a fifth round pick.
15 - the number of catches by Phillip Dorsett since Josh Gordon played in his first game with the Pats. For all the heartwarming stories written about Dorsett in training camp, Gordon essentially took his place in the offense when he was acquired. Dorsett, who is a free agent this offseason, is unlikely to return in 2019.
17 - the number of sacks by the Pats defense, which is 30th in the NFL.
James White: White can have a big day against the Vikings because he should get matched up against a linebacker. Linebackers have a tough time covering White. Look for the Pats to throw a lot to White who had only one catch against the Jets but had nine rushes for 73 yards. White is having a Pro Bowl season.
Rob Gronkowski: Gronkowski had three catches for 56 yards in his first game back against the Jets. Gronk made a great touchdown catch in the first half and while he might not be the Gronkowski of old teams must respect him for his ability to make the big play in the key moment of the game.
Stephon Gilmore: Gilmore looked great against the New York Jets after a miserable game against the Titans. It was his only blemish this year. Gilmore is one of the best five corners in football. Look for Gilmore to cover Vikings WR Stefon Diggs who has 79 receptions for 790 yards.
Duke Dawson: If Dawson is active for the first time Sunday, the rookie could see some assignments against Adam Thielen who has likely been the best receiver in football this year. Surely, Dawson will have help over the top. Jonathan Jones struggled in the slot last week and the Pats likely hope that Dawson can replace Jones. Nothing, though, like facing the game's best receiver potentially in your NFL debut.
Player Spotlight: Joe Thuney: Thuney, the Pats left guard, has played 100 percent of the offensive snaps this season. Thuney and Trent Brown have given the Pats a strong left side of the offensive line this year. It was fair to worry about the left side of the offensive line in training camp - given that Brown was moving from the right side to the left side and first round pick Isaiah Wynn was lost for the season.
Game Plan: Offensively, the Pats first priority must be to watch where Vikings S Harrison Smith is located. Bill Belichick compared Smith's ability to disguise his intent pre-snap to that of Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu. Belichick has called Reed the greatest free safety of all time. Smith could matchup against Gronkowski. It would be a big break for the Pats if Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes does not play. Rhodes (hamstring) did not practice Wednesday. The Pats can also attack the Vikings second corner Trae Wanes.
Defensively, the task is easier said than done: limit Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Bill Belichick will likely do whatever is necessary to take these two players away. If the Pats limit Thielen and Diggs they win. The Vikings are unlikely to beat the Pats with their two running backs Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray. Kyle Rudolph is a good tight end and given the Pats struggles against Bears tight end Trey Burton earlier this season Rudolph could have a big day. Patrick Chung must prevent Rudolph from getting a free release. The Vikings also have a weak offensive line so the Pats should be able to get pressure.
Quotes on Game: Rob Gronkowski on facing Vikings S Harrison Smith. "Yeah, he’s a big guy and he’s physical and he’s tough. He’s going to be bringing it. He’s just got all-around game and the size that he has too definitely stands out.”
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
-- Pats RT Marcus Cannon vs. Vikings DE Danielle Hunter: Hunter has 11.5 sacks this season and is simply one of the best pass rushers in the league. Cannon must limit his athleticism and prevent Hunter from getting a strong burst off the line of scrimmage.
-- Vikings RG Mike Remmers vs. Patriots DE Trey Flowers: Flowers is a better player when he lines up in a three technique against the guard than a five technique against the tackle. If the Pats get a lead, they can put Flowers and Clayborn on the same side and allow him to do some stunts. It was a stunt that led to Flowers’s sack against the Jets.