Patriots might need another grind-it-out performance against Vikings

The unfamiliarity adds a layer of fun when the teams do clash.

New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman (11) celebrates his touchdown with Tom Brady during the second half of an NFL football game against the New York Jets Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, in East Rutherford, N.J.
New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman celebrates his touchdown with Tom Brady during a game against the New York Jets Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, in East Rutherford, N.J. –Bill Kostroun/AP Photo

Welcome to Season 7, Episode 12 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.

Quick, when you think of the history between the Patriots and Vikings, what game first comes to mind?

We’re all on the same page of the history books here, right? It has to be the Patriots’ 26-20 overtime victory on November 13, 1994, right? The one in which Drew Bledsoe, in the second year of a journey in which he would establish a legacy as the second-best quarterback in franchise history, threw a record 70 pass attempts, completed a record 45, and found fullback Kevin Turner for the winning touchdown in overtime. That one was quite a thrill in its day.

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It’s also a reminder that the Patriots’ history with the Vikings is rather limited. They’ve met 12 times – Sunday’s matchup in Gillette Stadium (Fox, 4:25 p.m., Joe Buck and Troy Aikman on the call) is the 13th – with the Patriots winning eight, including the last four.

The Patriots won the last meeting between the franchises, a 30-7 victory in Minnesota in September 2014. Old friend Matt Cassel – probably the seventh-best quarterback in Patriots history, depending upon how you feel about Hugh Millen – threw four picks that day.

The unfamiliarity adds a layer of fun when the teams do clash. The Vikings were an outstanding team last year, going 13-3 before losing to the Eagles in the NFC title game and missing a chance to play at home during the Super Bowl. Their record isn’t quite as crisp this year – they’re 6-4-1 after last week’s win over the Packers. But Bill Belichick said this week that this Vikings group could be better than last year’s team, and with Kirk Cousins at quarterback instead of one-year wonder Case Keenum, it’s not hard to see where he’s coming from. Should be a good one.

Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this one started …

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THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED TOM BRADY

Rex Burkhead: The Patriots have received excellent production in the running and passing games from backs James White and Sony Michel, but depth has been perilously thin behind them, which is one reason how receiver-by-trade Cordarelle Pattterson ends up with 37 carries and even a goal-line attempt or two. (The other reason? He’s better at running with the ball than catching it.) Burkhead, who is expected to return to action Sunday after being on injured reserve for the previous eight games after suffering a neck injury in Week 3 against the Lions, is the kind of quality, versatile depth that the Patriots need and could not find in the likes of Kenjon Barner. Burkhead, who was the Patriots’ leading rusher at the time of his injury (albeit with just 84 yards), can be a factor in the passing and running games. More important, he can give White – arguably the Patriots’ most important offensive player after Brady – and Michel a breather when they need one.

See Your Boston Teams Up Close

Harrison Smith: The safety is one of the more unheralded great players in the NFL. He’s a three-time Pro Bowler and 2017 All-Pro who was graded as the best player in the league last season by Pro Football Focus, but he’d probably be tough to pick out from a lineup of random defensive backs for most football fans. He got the highest level of heralding from Belichick this week, though. The Patriots coach compared his playmaking ability to that of Hall of Fame safeties and longtime Patriots opponents Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed. Polamalu was actually a player that Brady and the Patriots could expose at times due to his overaggressiveness. But there are few players Belichick holds in higher regard than Reed, the brilliant Ravens safety for so many years. Comparing Smith to him is both a high compliment and an acknowledgment that he is someone to be reckoned with come Sunday.

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Adam Thielen: The Vikings’ 28-year-old receiver leads the league with 93 catches, and he’s second in receiving yards with 1,138 while also scoring eight touchdowns. Not too shabby for a guy signed as an undrafted free agent out of mighty Mankato State in 2013. Don’t be the Patriots fan who suggests that he is some sort of scrappy slot-only receiver, either. He’s 6-feet-2-inches and 201 pounds, and averages more yards per catch (12.2) than the likes of Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate, and Alshon Jeffrey. The Patriots won’t face many tougher receiver matchups this year, though dealing with Thielen will get a little easier if fellow standout pass-catcher Stefon Diggs (sore knee) can’t go.

GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK

The history is so limited with the Vikings that there’s not much to be annoyed about, but here’s a small something: Their history of trading up in the draft to get playmakers the Patriots covet. Remember the unjustifiably smug Vikings coach Brad Childress gloating that he had pulled a fast one on the Patriots by trading up to take their supposed target, Florida receiver Percy Harvin, with the 22d pick in the 2009 draft? The Patriots traded out of the No. 23 spot, a transaction – one of a series during that draft — that directly led to the selection of Rob Gronkowski in the second round the next year. The Patriots also reportedly wanted Stefon Diggs in the fifth round of the 2015 draft – why the heck was he there so late in the first place – but the Vikings beat them to him with the No. 146 overall pick. The Patriots ended up getting long snapper Joe Cardona later in the round. Nice player, but not quite the same impact there.

PREDICTION, OR THE PATRIOTS TOTALLY WOULD HAVE THUMPED THE VIKINGS IN THE SUPER BOWL LAST YEAR

I suppose we could gripe that the Patriots, who upon returning from the bye had to grind out a 27-13 victory over the lowly Jets last week, are still searching for their identity. I’d say their identity is that of a team that has won seven of its last eight games despite some challenges, but it would be encouraging to see them put up a complete offensive performance against a good team. I’m not sure that comes this week against a Vikings team that features the league’s best third-down defense and ranks second in yardage allowed and 10th in points. But another grind-it-out victory serves the same purpose, right? Patriots 31, Vikings 28.

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