Best offense you've ever played on?
The question, directed at some Patriots players following their trouncing of the Buffalo Bills Sunday night, figured to yield the obvious response. Of course.
But one player wasn't ready to go there just yet. As wide receiver Randy Moss pointed out, he played on the 1998 Minnesota Vikings team that still holds the NFL record for points scored in a season (556).
The 2007 Patriots are fast approaching, though. They have 411 points in 10 contests and thus are on a pace to score a mind-boggling 658 points.
"To me, it's pretty simple," says Dennis Green, the coach of that 15-1 Vikings team. "The common thread here is Randy Moss.
"That year, Randy was new to the league, and I always say that he redefined the deep ball in the National Football League. He reminded people of the old days when quarterbacks actually threw the ball deep, and we had a guy who could throw the deep ball in Randall Cunningham.
"The Patriots look pretty much unstoppable, and when you look at who's playing, it's the same old problem: What are you going to do to stop Randy Moss?"
While Moss is the most obvious link between the of fenses, he's not the only one. Like the Patriots, the '98 Vikings primarily ran a three-receiver offense, with Moss on one side, Jake Reed on the other, and Cris Carter in the slot.
In New England, it's Moss and Donté Stallworth on the flanks, and Wes Welker in the slot.
"It was a spread offense, and not a lot of people ran that at the time," Green recalled. "The thing with us was that we had Robert Smith in a single-back set, and he had incredible speed. So we'd try to bomb a team early with Randy and the deep ball. Teams might be in a two-deep [zone, with safeties splitting the back half of the field] but I always said Randy would run through the two-deep. To stop Randy Moss, you needed a deep two-deep.
"So when we saw that, we'd hit them with a screen or a draw with Robert Smith. He had so much speed, so if there was any kind of opening, he could take advantage. That was a key dimension, the speed of Robert Smith, along with Randy Moss and the consistency of Cris Carter."
From Green's point of view, that's where his '98 Vikings and the '07 Patriots differ.
Green doesn't see the Patriots utilizing their running backs the way the Vikings did. He also notes that the Vikings didn't jump on teams with the authority that the Patriots have, but instead were "scoring steadily along the way."
Also, whereas quarterback Tom Brady is in his eighth season with the Patriots, Cunningham was in his second season with the Vikings, having been out of football as recently as two years earlier. Cunningham wasn't even the Vikings' opening-day quarterback that year; he replaced an injured Brad Johnson in the second week. Because of that, Green viewed Minnesota as a team that was "trying to keep it together, which is in contrast with New England."
Still, the question that Green and the Vikings often heard in '98 is the same one that is now echoing around the Patriots: How do you stop them?
The Vikings lost two games that year - 27-24 at Tampa Bay in the ninth week of the season, and a 30-27 overtime decision to the visiting Falcons in the NFC Championship game.
Current University of Kentucky coach Rich Brooks was the defensive coordinator for that Falcons team and remembers the sleepless nights that preceded that contest.
"The one thing we felt playing that offense is that you could not let Randy Moss run down the field unmolested," Brooks recalled. "You had to basically roll up somebody to his side and put a safety over the top to help, and knock him off his route. If you let him run down the field, there just aren't many people who can cover him."
Moss was still a factor in the game, catching six passes for 75 yards and one touchdown. The touchdown, a 31-yarder in the first quarter, came on what Brooks recalled was busted coverage.
Brooks and then-Atlanta head coach Dan Reeves said the Falcons did not blitz much in that game, out of fear of leaving them exposed in the secondary. Reeves felt it was crucial to generate some pressure with just four rushers - Travis Hall and Chuck Smith were top linemen and got the job done - so seven players could drop into coverage.
That was the foundation of the Falcons' defensive approach and figures to be the primary blueprint in attempts to derail the Patriots' lethal air attack. A team that can generate pressure with just four rushers, like the Indianapolis Colts, gives itself the best chance to slow down a lethal offense.
Yet Reeves, now working as an analyst for
"When I compare those two teams, I don't think Minnesota had as good of a defense as the Patriots do, so we went into that game with the feeling that we had to help out our defense by keeping them off the field and controlling the ball," Reeves said. "The thing I noticed in watching every Minnesota game is that teams were doing a good job getting into the red zone but then they had illegal procedure penalties due to the noise in the dome and ended up having to kick field goals.
"So for us, our offense was crucial, and we knew we'd have to handle the crowd noise and we worked extremely hard on our silent count. We hadn't normally done a silent count in the shotgun, but we decided we'd do it all the time and that if we could possess the ball, we'd have a chance. That helped us, and it also helped that we went down and scored on our opening possession."
The Falcons kept the time-of-possession battle close that day - Minnesota had the ball for 36:48, Atlanta for 35:04 - and also needed a few breaks to go their way. The Vikings led, 20-7, and had the ball at their own 18 with 1:17 left in the half, and figured to sit on the ball, as they would receive the opening kickoff of the second half.
But when the Vikings gambled, the Falcons pounced, registering a strip sack and turning it into a late touchdown to make it 20-14 at the half. Then, late in the fourth quarter, kicker Gary Anderson missed a 38-yard field goal attempt that would have given the Vikings a 10-point lead, opening the door for the Falcons' dramatic comeback.
So both Brooks and Reeves are reluctant to say the Falcons somehow "shut down" the Vikings that day. What they did, more accurately, was design a scheme to slow them down while relying on the other two elements of the game - offense and special teams - for support. And, of course, they needed a few breaks to go their way, in the form of Vikings mistakes.
So as the '07 Patriots close in on the '98 Vikings' record for points in a season - and the question of how to stop them grows louder - a reflection back to the '98 NFC title game can be helpful.
"There wasn't any question it was the biggest challenge we had ever had," Brooks recalled. "Just like defending the Patriots, it's problematic. And I'm glad I don't have that problem."
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org