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ON FOOTBALL

Hard lesson brought home to the NFC

MINNEAPOLIS -- Last night the Patriots taught the Minnesota Vikings the difference between Division 1 and Division 1-AA football, NFL-style.

In the NFC, the Vikings are a playoff contender. Against the AFC, they are cannon fodder. In the NFC, they are a physical team that can run over you with a massive offensive line or shut down yours with a massive defensive line. Against the AFC, they are no more than an annoyance.

The Vikings came to the Metrodome to make their first home appearance in five years on "Monday Night Football" armed with those massive fronts, a raucous crowd, and an abundance of confidence after manhandling the defending NFC champion Seahawks just a week ago. By halftime, they had learned a sad truth: Beating the Seahawks may be a big deal in the NFC, but in the AFC, you haven't beaten anybody until you've beaten the iron -- the Patriots, Broncos, and Colts -- and the Vikings couldn't even beat the Bills, the AFC's version of cannon fodder.

Minnesota had sound reasons to believe it could face down the Patriots, who walked onto the field with a depleted offensive line reduced to using third-string guard Billy Yates to block massive Kevin Williams and with All-Pro defensive end Richard Seymour clearly impaired by the braced left arm he nearly broke a week ago. Yet by halftime, it was obvious that these football teams were in two different classes.

For unsuspecting Viking fans, it was like going to the zoo for the first time and learning the difference between a hyena and a lion. One may be irksome at times but the other is to be feared at all times. The Vikings were not the lions last night. They were eaten by the lions.

New England led, 17-0, after 30 minutes on the way to a lopsided 31-7 victory, on which the only blemish was a 71-yard punt return for a score by Minnesota's Mewelde Moore. The victory left New England 6-1 going into Sunday night's real showdown, when the undefeated Colts (7-0) come to Foxborough to show all of football what happens when titans collide. Last night, there was only one team of titans on the field, and it was the Patriots, although at times the Vikings did resemble the Tennessee Titans.

Minnesota was destroyed at the line of scrimmage, repeatedly having its seams burst whenever poor Brad Johnson tried to throw (3.2 yards per attempt, three interceptions, many bruises) and never able to reach Tom Brady, who riddled the Vikings secondary by throwing for 372 yards and four touchdowns.

Even though Minnesota did succeed in stuffing New England's running game for much of the night, it made no difference. Brady simply threw over, under, around, and through the Vikings, who seldom got near him, and when they did, it was usually to no good end because by the time they arrived, the ball almost always was gone in some direction Minnesota found baffling. This corrosive process began right from the opening drive, when New England went 86 yards in seven plays, a drive in which Brady was 6 of 6, including a 45-yard completion to his new favorite target, a wide-open Doug Gabriel, and a 6-yard scoring strike to Reche Caldwell that made it 7-0 with the game less than four minutes old.

The packed house was stunned into momentary silence at the ease with which New England had shredded Minnesota's defense, but by the end of the quarter, the Vikings had a chance to answer back after a Darren Sharper interception gave them the ball at their 45. Quickly they ran and passed their way downfield, converting three times on third down only to have Johnson throw a goal line interception when his intended receiver, Moore, was knocked off his route. As Moore stumbled nearly to the ground, Johnson let the ball go in a direction where Moore should have been. But the only man standing there was safety Rodney Harrison. For all intents and purposes, the game ended at that moment.

Not because New England marched upfield to score another touchdown, because it did not. What it did do was nearly as paralyzing, however. Brady delivered completions of 40 yards to Benjamin Watson and 20 to Laurence Maroney, and then Corey Dillon ran for 15 yards. That's 75 yards in three plays that not only set up Stephen Gostkowski's 23-yard field goal but hammered home the point that stout though the Vikings defense might be by NFC standards, it was not going to hold off one of the AFC's elite teams for long. Or at all, for that matter.

Things could have gotten worse quickly after Chad Scott intercepted Johnson on the next drive following that field goal, but for a brief time Minnesota's defense stiffened. Soon enough, Brady wound find Caldwell for a 34-yard completion on a third-and-12 at the Patriot 24 with 3:43 to play in the first half and on the next play Minnesota, which was generally as tough as advertised against the run, gave in for an instant and allowed Maroney to ramble for 22 yards. That's 56 yards in two plays, reiterating a point that would be made again and again all night: The NFC may be in the NFL but it's not in the same league as the elite teams of the AFC.

Need more evidence? Three plays later, Caldwell caught a 12-yard pass on third and 10 at the Patriot 20, then Watson caught a 9-yard touchdown pass on third down. Twice Minnesota could have saved itself if its defense held for just one more play, but it could not, just as it could not control the line of scrimmage offensively to get a running game moving at a time when it might have meant something. It could not do enough with that massive offensive line to give Johnson the kind of time that allows a 37-yard-old veteran passer to be relaxed when he pulls the trigger, either.

Conversely, it could not put Brady in uncomfortable positions even with its own huge defensive line and young Yates holding the fort in place of injured Stephen Neal. You seldom saw Brady on the ground and you never noticed Yates nor heard his name. The same goes for Pat and Kevin Williams, Minnesota's 628 pounds of defensive tackles who had been talked about all week but did nothing to merit a continuation of the conversation last night.

Nothing the Vikings tried felt comfortable, it seemed. Not on offense, where their massive line was negated and often beaten backwards by the Patriots' quicker and more powerful defensive fronts, and not on defense, where they stopped the run but forgot to stop the Patriots. It was a harsh lesson for the Vikings, who may reside only 200 miles from the Iron Range but are still a long, long way from the iron of the AFC.

Ron Borges can be reached at borges@globe.com.

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