Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 24-10 win over the Vikings in a game where Tom Brady looked good again, Bill Belichick looked to badly want a win, and the Pats once more looked like a team moving in the right direction …
Gordon delivers, on delay
Through two and a half quarters, Josh Gordon hadn’t shown up on the stat sheet — and that wasn’t the only place he was missing. Two games after the receiver was the target on 12 of Brady’s 41 tosses against the Titans, Gordon didn’t appear a significant enough piece of New England’s early game plan to even stay on the field with regularity as the quarterback spread things around to a variety of weapons.
But just as we’ve seen them do with Rob Gronkowski in the past, the Patriots turned to the physical gifts of Gordon when they needed a spark in the second half. His first target was his first catch, a simple hitch-and-pitch to the left side that got the defense to bite and ultimately went for 24 yards. The next throw went to Gronkowski for 15 yards, followed by a 12-yard James White scamper, then Gordon did a good job of finding the soft spot in Minnesota’s defense and Brady hit him with a 24-yard touchdown strike.
That gave New England a 17-10 lead, immediately answering the Minnesota field goal that tied the score, and after the Vikings punted the Pats went back to Gordon immediately as they moved to expand their advantage. Gordon was grabbed early on first down, good for a pass-interference penalty, and suddenly New England was at the enemy 30. Gordon made another catch that gave the Patriots first down at the 2, and set up James Develin’s second steamrolling score of the afternoon. Just like that, Gordon had showed up. He had eight catches on eight targets in his past two games. It was a 14-point Patriots lead.
And just a couple of contests after it looked like the Patriots were desperate to get him involved, it looks like they might’ve figured out just how to use him.
A purposeful start on both sides
Sunday started with the feel of one of those games in which the Patriots recognize the challenge in front of them, but feel good about the work they’ve done to prepare for it, and aggressively assert themselves on the way to a statement win.
It didn’t turn out that way, as the Vikings adjusted to tie the score and take the game’s momentum over its middle stages — though in a season when the Pats have paid a price at times for looking underprepared and unenergized out of the tunnel, Sunday’s game offered reason to be encouraged about the way they’re doing a better job of readying for battle. Even if they weren’t necessarily able to sustain it against the Vikings.
New England came out clicking, and collecting yardage in sizable chunks. Looking like the Patriots of old, Brady slung short passes to receivers with room to run, and on their first offensive series they picked up 13, 18, 24, and 15 yards on successive snaps en route to an 81-yard scoring march. The Pats kept it going throughout the first quarter, picking up at least 10 yards seven times on their first 19 plays from scrimmage (and 137 yards altogether).
Meanwhile, to that point Minnesota had run 17 plays and totaled just 71 yards of offense, with the Vikings punting three times and missing a field goal on their first four possessions. During that stretch the Patriots made it difficult for the Vikes to even try getting the ball to the NFL’s leading receiver — Adam Thielen was targeted once before the final drive of the second quarter — and one of the league’s preeminent passing attacks couldn’t convert a third down try until after intermission.
Following up a solid start a week earlier against the Jets, the Patriots have responded positively to the problematic way they opened in Tennessee. And given that first and third quarters have been their worst periods this season, their improvement in each of those coming out of the bye bodes well for the adjustments made amid that week of self-study.
Flowers, Jackson, and the defense step up
Defensively the Patriots limited the NFL’s sixth-most prolific passing attack to only 201 yards through the air, intercepting Kirk Cousins twice in the fourth quarter, and limiting Minnesota’s passing game to just 4.6 yards per attempt. (For context, consider that the season’s worst qualifying passer in the league was averaging 6.2 yards per throw entering the weekend.)
It marked the second straight week the Pats have yielded just a single touchdown, and the third time in five games the Patriots haven’t allowed their opponent to reach the end zone twice. Through 12 games, New England has now given up 259 points; again, for context, consider that through 12 games, Darrelle Revis’s 2014 defense had given up 253 points.
Sunday’s performance was a team effort, particularly in terms of the quality tackling, but individually it was keyed by the efforts of Trey Flowers up front and J.C. Jackson in the back. Flowers was a beast who seemed to be in the Minnesota backfield all night, notching a sack, hitting Cousins another time, and using his speed to force a bad throw from the quarterback to end a drive on third down in the first half. He nearly had a fourth-down stuff to brag about, too, but that call was overturned on review.
Jackson was targeted by Cousins often, but Belichick and de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores trusted the rookie cornerback with significant responsibility against the primary components of a passing game that is likely to finish the campaign with two receivers topping 100 catches and 1,000 yards. In totality, the secondary limited Thielen to just five catches on his 10 targets, and to keeping Stefon Diggs to a total of 49 yards on his five grabs. When it got the undrafted rookie against one of them, Minnesota appeared to target that matchup, but Jackson was physical, competitive, and active on the ball — dare it be said in the mould of a young Malcolm Butler — and finished his day by breaking up a throw to the end zone that turned into a Duron Harmon pick. His aggressiveness fit in with what the Pats’ defense did at every level Sunday. And what has marked the group’s best games throughout this season.
Pats win on third down and in the red zone
Coming in, the biggest reason the Vikings had to be confident was their ability to rise to the moment on third down and in the red zone. No NFL team had been better this season in preventing opponents from converting for first downs, and no team had done a better job of keeping foes out of the end zone after they advanced inside the 20.
But the Patriots made Minnesota look pedestrian in those pivotal spots. New England converted 7-for-14 third downs, nearly double the Vikings’ season-long conversion allowance of 27.6 percent, and the Pats picked up a fourth down, too. Meanwhile, the Vikings had given up touchdowns on just 43.2 percent of enemy red-zone visits, but New England gave it to Develin and converted on two of their three opportunities. The only one that didn’t score was stalled at the 3 when referees held their flags on what might’ve been pass interference incurred by Julien Edelman.
On the other side, the Patriots stepped up, too. Minnesota scored on its only red-zone trip, just before halftime. However, the Vikings opened the day 0-for-5 on third down, and finished by missing their last four attempts. In total, they finished 3-for-12 on third down against a Pats defense that began the day ranked 26th league-wide when it came to getting off the field.
Minnesota’s best chance of leaving Gillette Stadium victorious was to successfully bring its numbers to life on the Foxborough turf. Instead, it was the Pats who came up with more of those pivotal plays when possessions were in peril or points were at stake.
A chance to clinch
With the win, the Patriots set themselves up for a chance to clinch the AFC East with a win next week in Miami. The Dolphins beat the Bills on Sunday, 21-17, despite being outgained 415-175 in terms of yards from scrimmage, and are now at 6-6 on the season. New England is 9-3, so a win next week would mean it’s the only division club capable of getting to double-digits in victories.
The East title is the first goal every year, given that it comes with a home playoff game. But, by now, Pats fans are already focused on the bigger picture, and how the locals fit into the top of the conference at large. The Chiefs had more trouble than expected with the Raiders Sunday, escaping with a 40-33 win in their first game without former star running back Kareem Hunt, but are nevertheless 10-2. That’s a game ahead of the Pats and the Texans, who won their ninth straight game on Sunday, and have recovered from a rough start to match the Pats at 9-3.
The good news for the Patriots is that they beat both Kansas City and Houston, so they’d own any tiebreakers. They have a chance to take the tiebreaker against the likely AFC North champs, the Steelers, at Pittsburgh in a couple of weeks — and they have a realistic chance to run the table, considering after that the only remaining games are at home against Bills and Jets teams that’ll be playing out the string.
At this point, 13-3 seems a distinct possibility, and no worse than 12-4 all but certain, in the season that has repeatedly been characterized as the one where the Patriots’ dynasty had begun to deteriorate.