The most amazing takeaway from Sunday’s 24-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings wasn’t Patriots quarterback Tom Brady hitting the 1,000-yard rushing mark.
It wasn’t New England head coach Bill Belichick telling Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen to “shut the f*** up,” nor was it tight end Rob Gronkowski’s vanishing act. It wasn’t really Josh Gordon’s second-half contributions or the ability of rookie corner J.C. Jackson to withstand Kirk Cousins’s infrequent deep attempts.
No, the most curious aspect of the win was the understanding that this was the same Patriots defense that made Blake Bortles look like Dan Marino only 11 short weeks ago.
This was the same Patriots defense that gagged in its first showdown against former coordinator Matt Patricia only one week later. Heck, it’s the same Patriots defense that appeared inept and either confused or disinterested at the very least in a loss to the Tennessee Titans only three weeks ago.
In a vacuum, calling what the Patriots managed to do against the Vikings Sunday their best defensive performance of the season would be like considering “Come on Eileen” the best song on the Dexys Midnight Runners box set. There haven’t been a whole lot of greatest hits to compare it to.
You wanted to feel decent about the Patriots’ defense after it allowed only 17 points to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers early last month. Except the Packers are terrible. Same for the Jets and Bills, opponents against whom we’ve now come to realize results don’t really count outside of the win.
So, yeah, it was the best defensive effort of the season for the New England Patriots.
It wouldn’t have taken much to consider otherwise.
“We knew it was going to take a great defensive effort just to put this team in a good position,” defensive back Duron Harmon said. “We knew we had to come ready to play and accepted the challenge to play as hard as we can. There are things we are going to try to build on and obviously the tape won’t be perfect, there are always things that we have to continue to work on.”
Give credit to defensive coordinator Brian Flores’s unit for its ability to disguise its various packages against the Vikings, causing fits all afternoon for Cousins and, in particular, Thielen (five catches, 28 yards one touchdown), who unraveled his frustration on the gridiron much in the way Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, and LaDainian Tomlinson have managed over the years.
There was something similarly maddening about the Patriots’ defense on Sunday.
“Give the defensive coaching a lot of credit there and the players for executing it,” Belichick said after the win. “It was just great execution by the players and it was a good plan by the defensive staff.”
It may have been enough to give Patriot fans some added hope as the NFL season swings into January. After all, how many weeks has the defense actually been overshadowed by the likes of Gronkowski and Julian Edelman on the list of week-to-week concerns?
“I think we have some of the best secondary players in the league,” Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. “They don’t get noticed enough. I feel like it’s led by [Devin] McCourty and [Patrick] Chung and then you got one of the best corners in the league right now, if not the best — he’s the best in my opinion — in Stephon [Gilmore]. He’s playing really good football for us right now.
“You could tell that they were having a tough time reading what we were doing. We executed really well as a defense. The offense played really complementary football tonight and special teams did their thing tonight as well. It was just a good team win.”
But was it one you could really, truly, believe in?
No team in the NFL adapts as well to its needs like the New England Patriots, a matter we’ve become accustomed to over the past 18 years under Belichick. It is a testament to the coach’s patience that, year in and year out, the Patriots emerge into something different at this time of year free from the discombobulations and overwhelming question marks that emanate from them through the early days of foliage.
Usually, that happens in November rather than Dec. 2. But better late than never.
Still, it’s going to take more than confusing the NFL’s 18th-best team in terms of points per game for the Patriots defense to be considered something of an asset. Oh, in the comfy confines of Gillette Stadium, perhaps we shouldn’t expect anything different. Which makes us wonder how the defense will back things up in late-season house of hours Miami on Sunday. Or how it will take on the annual challenge of shutting down the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, assuming Ben Roethlisberger and company don’t just do it by themselves again.
What the Patriots managed defensively Sunday was encouraging. What the Patriots managed Sunday against the Vikings was their best defensive performance of the season.
Yeah, no s***.
“We were motivated,” Gilmore said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We had a good week of practice and we were prepared and we came out and showed it today.”
Adapt. Adapt. Adapt. Nobody does it better.
Again. And again.