Next up for the Patriots: the Minnesota Vikings, who come to Gillette Stadium on Sunday. The Vikings will be the final NFC North opponent on the schedule, with the Patriots having already defeated the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers, and losing to the Detroit Lions.
Here’s a closer look at the Vikings:
Not as expected
At 6-4-1, it’s been a bit of a disappointing season. Last season, Minnesota went 13-3 to capture a division title and reach the NFC Championship Game, before losing to eventual Super Bowl LII champion Philadelphia. The Vikings decided they needed better play at quarterback, and opted to move on from Case Keenum and sign Kirk Cousins to a three-year, $84 million contract.
Cousins has thrown for 3,289 yards and 22 touchdowns while completing 71 percent of his passes. He struggled in a 25-20 loss to the Chicago Bears in Week 11, but bounced back Sunday night, going 29 for 38 for 342 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-17 win over the Packers. The victory put Minnesota in the first wild-card spot in the NFC, 1½ games behind the Bears for the division lead.
“It’s a very good group offensively with a very good quarterback who’s a great thrower and a very athletic player,’’ said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “Not that he runs a lot but he can run when he needs to. He can extend plays and then he can make big plays. Yeah, they cause you a lot of problems.’’
A big arsenal
Cousins has plenty of weapons. Wide receiver Adam Thielen is having another excellent season. With five games remaining, he already has 93 receptions for 1,138 yards and eight touchdowns. He set a club record for the most 100-yard receiving games in a season when he had his ninth in the win over Green Bay, but his most impressive accomplishment may have been when he served as a limbo bar in the Vikings’ touchdown celebration.
“He does everything well,’’ said Belichick. “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.
Thielen is not the only target for Cousins. Stefon Diggs has 79 receptions for 790 yards and six touchdowns.
“They make a lot of big plays,’’ said Belichick. “They make a lot of big plays down the field, which is a problem, but then they make a lot of intermediate and catch-and-run plays. Especially Diggs – he’s very good with the ball in his hands. When you get to third down and red area, the critical possession and scoring situation plays, that’s a problem too.’’
Tight end Kyle Rudolph has 43 receptions for 425 yards.
“You can put [Kyle] Rudolph in there with them,’’ said Belichick. “They create a lot of problems in the passing game and then they create a lot of problems in the running game.’’
Latavius Murray is the leading rusher for the Vikings with 455 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. Second-year running back Dalvin Cook has not done much to justify the Vikings making him the third running back selected in the 2017 draft, ahead of Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, and James Conner, to name a few. But he has proven to be versatile, and had a touchdown reception against the Packers Sunday night that prompted the aforementioned limbo contest celebration.
The other side of the ball
The Vikings defense has been coming around and played well in the win over the Packers. Two weeks earlier, they sacked Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford 10 times in a 24-9 win over the Lions. Tackle Tom Johnson, released by the Seahawks two months earlier, had a career-high 2½ sacks in that game. Danielle Hunter had 3½ sacks. Hunter, 23, signed a five-year contract extension last offseason worth $72 million, and has gone about earning it this season, registering 11½ sacks, second only to Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams, who has 14½.
Sheldon Richardson has bounced back from a 2017 season in which he had a career-low one sack with Seattle, to getting 3½ sacks thus far. Linebacker Eric Kendricks leads the team in tackles with 79, while safety Harrison Smith is the team leader in interceptions with three.
For the second year in a row, the Vikings lead the league in third-down defense, allowing a first down just 27.64 percent of the time. Last season, Minnesota’s opponents converted a first down 28 percent of the time.
With the NFC North squaring off against the AFC East this season, the two teams have had five common opponents (Minnesota will play Miami in Week 15). Here is how they fared.
Green Bay Packers: The Vikings defeated the Packers at home, 24-17, and tied them at Green Bay, 29-29. The Patriots defeated Green Bay at Gillette Stadium, 31-17.
Detroit Lions: Minnesota won at home, 24-9, and will play at Detroit in Week 16. The Patriots were thumped, 26-10, at Detroit.
Chicago Bears: The Patriots won, 38-31 at Chicago, while Minnesota lost, 25-20, on the road and will host the Bears in the season finale in Week 17.
Buffalo Bills: The Vikings lost in stunning fashion at home, 27-6. The Patriots won, 25-6 at Buffalo and will host the Bills in Week 13.
New York Jets: Minnesota won at New York, 37-17, as did the Patriots, 27-13. The Patriots close out the season by hosting the Jets at Gillette Stadium.
Rough road ahead
Sunday’s game is the first of two critical road games for Minnesota. After facing the Patriots in the FOX game of the week (4:25 p.m. start), the Vikings will be at Seattle to face the Seahawks on Monday Night Football on Dec. 10.