Patriots

Is this Patriots team ready for prime time? We’ll start finding out on Thanksgiving against the Vikings.

New England's next four games are in prime time, including against the Bills, Cardinals, and Raiders, starting with back-to-back Thursday night games.

Andy Clayton-King
Justin Jefferson of the Vikings is among the most productive receivers in the NFL. ANDY CLAYTON-KING/ASSOCIATED PRESS


Welcome to Season 11, Episode 11 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup …

Thanksgiving is a time of introspection. Well, OK, it’s a time of food and football first and foremost for many of us. But introspection ranks up there. That is fitting for the Patriots’ game against the Vikings Thursday since it matches up teams that are about to find out something about themselves.

The Patriots arrive at the holiday with a 6-4 record, having beaten the Jets Sunday for the 14th consecutive time and second time this season despite managing a lone offensive touchdown in eight quarters. They’ve won three in a row and five of their last six games, which for the most part is an admirable job of churning out wins considering that their offense is in a constant struggle to find rhythm and cohesion.

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But now they’ve arrived at the gauntlet. The Patriots play back-to-back Thursday night games, taking on Josh Allen and the Bills next week on Amazon Prime. (Finally, a Thursday night matchup that is worthy of Al Michaels.) Their next four games are in prime time, including a Monday night matchup with the Cardinals and a Sunday night clash with the Raiders. Then they close with home games against the Bengals and Dolphins, and a road rematch with the Bills that may just determine the Patriots’ playoff fate.

There are games they should win, and they’ll win one or two that the oddsmakers don’t expect them to, but none of them will be easy. The back portion of the schedule is more challenging than the front portion was. Shadows of 2019 — when the Patriots started 8-0 against assorted weaklings before losing four of their final eight and then losing to the Titans in the wild-card round — hover over this team.

The sense here is that this Patriots defense will hold up much better than the so-called “Boogeymen” of ‘19 — at the least, this group, which ranks second in the NFL at 16.9 points allowed per game, is much faster. But it must prove they’re for real against higher-caliber offenses other than those led by the likes of Zach Wilson.

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The Vikings, who average 22.9 points per game, 13th in the league, are a decent place to begin doing so. Of course, the Vikings have some things to figure out about themselves.

They went into Sunday’s game with the Cowboys with an 8-1 record and coming off a thrilling comeback win over the Bills. They promptly got pasted, 40-3, by a team coming off a bad loss to the Packers. The Cowboys scored 37 unanswered points. The Vikings were so rattled that they committed six penalties in the third quarter alone — and Isaiah Wynn isn’t even on their roster.

The Vikings’ performance, or staggering lack of performance, brought fair questions about whether their record is misleading. Seven of their victories have been one-score games, and their point-differential is actually negative (229 scored, 231 allowed).

The Vikings may be a very good team, or they may be a mirage. But beating a team with an .800 winning percentage and a roster featuring plenty of high-end talent would be an assuring way for the Patriots to begin this challenging stretch.

Kick it off, Folk (or will it be you, Palardy?), and let’s get this thing started …

Three players to watch other than the quarterbacks

Justin Jefferson: Any mention of that high-end talent on the Vikings must begin with Jefferson, the former Louisiana State star who has taken the league by storm pretty much since Minnesota used the No. 22 pick — one slot before the Patriots were to be on the clock — in the 2020 draft to select him. Jefferson hauled in 88 catches for 1,400 yards and 7 touchdowns as a rookie, elevated to 108 catches for 1,616 yards and 10 TDs last year, and is already at 72 catches and 1,093 yards this year, albeit with just 4 touchdowns.

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He’s right there with Miami’s Tyreek Hill and Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs — the receiver he replaced in Minnesota — among the most productive pass catchers in the league. Jefferson has four games of at least 147 receiving yards this season, including a 10-catch, 193-yard masterpiece against the Bills. In that game, he made one of the best catches you will ever see — and certainly the best catch by someone with his surname since John Jefferson was the star of the Chargers’ “Air Coryell” attack more than 40 years ago — when he converted a fourth-and-18 late in the fourth quarter with a one-handed, physics-defying grab.

The Cowboys did neutralize Jefferson on Sunday, limiting him to three catches for 33 yards, and he’s been dealing with what is deemed a mild case of turf toe. Bill Belichick’s defenses have a long history of taking away an opponent’s most dangerous player, and with a pass rush capable of making life miserable for quarterback Kirk Cousins and cornerbacks Jonathan Jones, Jalen Mills, and Jack Jones having silenced any laments about losing J.C. Jackson to free agency, the Patriots’ fourth-ranked pass defense (188.3 yards per game) might just be up for this challenge.

Matthew Judon: During his ‘80s heyday of tormenting quarterbacks for sport and pleasure, Andre Tippett was without a doubt the second-best pass-rushing linebacker of his era and the closest thing the AFC had to Lawrence Taylor. Pro Football Hall of Fame voters have gotten some things wrong when it comes to the Patriots — little consideration for all-time deep threat Stanley Morgan, little intellectual curiosity on why Rodney Harrison had so few Pro Bowl selections — but at least they finally got around to electing Tippett in 2008, 15 years after his career ended.

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I bring this up because Tippett is the gold-jacket standard for what a Patriots pass rusher should be, and so we don’t make comparisons to him lightly. But there is no doubt about it — Judon is having the type of season that would fit right in on Tippett’s pro-football-reference.com page. After picking up 1½ sacks against the Jets, his eighth game this season with at least one sack and his fourth with more than one, Judon now has 13 on the season. That’s the third-best single-season total in Patriots history, behind two Tippett seasons — his 18½-sack tour de force in ‘84, and his 16½-sack sequel in ‘85.

Judon should add to his collection against a battered Vikings offensive line that will be without left tackle Christian Darrisaw (concussion) and allowed seven sacks by the Cowboys, including two by Micah Parsons, one of Judon’s competitors in early Defensive Player of the Year conversations. Only Dallas, with 42 sacks, has more than the Patriots’ 36 this season.

Dalvin Cook: Given that both teams have offensive lines that sometimes appear to be conspiring against their quarterback, Thursday’s game could turn on which team runs the ball better. The Vikings feature the most accomplished back in Cook, a three-time Pro Bowl selection who is well on his way to a fourth straight 1,000-yard season. Cook is sixth in the NFL in rushing with 799 yards and has scored six touchdowns, including an 81-yarder against the Bills. But for all of his production, the Vikings are just 24th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (106.9), and led by unheralded Ja’Whaun Bentley (the Patriots’ leading tackler with 65, 19 more than Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips), the Patriots have an improving run defense that ranks 13th in the league at 114.5 yards per game. Cook vs. the Patriots’ run defense is one matchup that could go either way.

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Grievance of the week

As you probably recall or heard in the buildup to this one, Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell was a third-round pick of the Patriots in 2008, taken with the 94th overall pick as a quarterback out of San Diego State. The Patriots got two excellent players in that draft, linebacker Jerod Mayo at No. 10 overall, and special-teams ace Matthew Slater in the fifth round, but didn’t hit on anyone else, and there was some question at the time why the Patriots would spend a third-round pick on a quarterback with Tom Brady on the roster.

O’Connell didn’t pan out, completing four passes in two games in relief of Matt Cassel, who was in for the injured Brady, in ‘08, then getting cut before the start of the season in ‘09. Some guys make it, some don’t, some become coaches, it happens. But it does make one cringe to look back at that 2008 draft and realize the Patriots took O’Connell one pick before the Giants selected Michigan receiver Mario Manningham. Patriots fans probably don’t require this reminder, but three seasons later, Manningham made a spectacular, crucial catch in the Giants’ win over the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Ya shoulda taken him, Bill!

Prediction, or will Devin McCourty and Harrison Smith break their tie at 33 career interceptions?

Cousins is sometimes mentioned as a comparison for what Mac Jones could become. Jones has had a rough second season for myriad reasons — it’s almost unfathomable that he has four touchdown passes in seven games considering he threw 22 as a rookie — but seriously, the hope should be that he ends up as something more than The Next Cousins. It’s not that Cousins hasn’t been productive in his 11-year career. He’s passed for more than 4,000 yards in six of the previous seven seasons and has thrown at least 25 touchdown passes in all seven of those years. But he tends to melt under the brightest lights. He’s 10-18 in prime-time games. He has one playoff win in four starts, a 26-20 Vikings overtime victory over the Saints in the 2019 wild-card round. Cousins’s team has a significant advantage in offensive talent in this game, but there’s not much evidence that he will rise to the occasion in prime time.

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The hunch here: Both quarterbacks will be under siege behind patched-up lines. I like Jones, coming off an efficient 246-yard performance against the Jets, to handle the heat just a little better. And I like the Patriots’ kicker, Nick Folk, much better than the Vikings’ Greg Joseph, who is just 14 of 19 on field goals. Count it as a signature win, and one to build on. Patriots 23, Vikings 20.

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