FOXBOROUGH - Perhaps it is the way things are meant to be when a game is played on Halloween, but there were some strange happenings on the field yesterday as the Patriots hosted the Vikings.
From "how did that happen?" receptions to an interception that drew a similar reaction, from the reappearance of the deep ball for the Patriots to a defense able to stop arguably the best running back in the game, there were more than a few head-scratching moments in New England’s 28-18 win.
And that’s without even mentioning the postgame news conferences from Minnesota’s Brett Favre (embarrassingly narcissistic) and Randy Moss (an ode to New England).
Maybe strangest of all? The Patriots continue to surprise, with a team that looks and plays in a way that’s oddly reminiscent of the glory years. They are now 6-1, alone atop the AFC East, and own at least a share of the best record in the NFL.
"I hate to talk about the past," said receiver Deion Branch, "but there is a resemblance to the past teams: sometimes the offense isn’t pretty, sometimes special teams or defense, but we’re finding a way."
Finding a way comes in different forms.
One way is to make a heck of a catch and spur your team to its first touchdown. That’s what Brandon Tate did in the second quarter. Minnesota had just gotten the first points of the game, a questionable 1-yard touchdown by Adrian Peterson; it looked like Peterson had been stopped short of the goal-line plane by Jerod Mayo.
But after a 21-yard catch and run from Branch (with an assist to Wes Welker for his block), Tom Brady faked an end-around to Welker, dropped back, and looked to Tate over the deep middle. Madieu Williams stepped in front of the pass and looked as if he was about to pull it in for an interception, but somehow it went through his hands. Tate, right behind Williams, bobbled it several times but hung on for the 32-yard play, putting New England at the 11.
"Oh yeah," Tate said when he was asked if he knew he could juggle like that. "At first I thought it was an interception because I was getting ready to touch [Williams] down when I saw the ball come out. So I just played to the whistle."
Three plays later, the Patriots were in the end zone, on a direct snap to Danny Woodhead from 3 yards out.
With the score tied, the defense made its contributions, with Rob Ninkovich pressuring Favre into an intentional grounding penalty on the Vikings’ ensuing possession, and the D stopping Peterson on fourth and goal from the 1 just before halftime.
On that play, Favre handed to Peterson, who ran into his right tackle, Phil Loadholt. Myron Pryor wrapped Peterson’s ankles, and Brandon Spikes and others finished the job.
"I think everybody was just tuned in on that play," said defensive lineman Vince Wilfork. "We got the formation they love to run in, they got the blockers in they love to run behind. I think everybody was just alert; we took advantage of it. That’s something big for us."
After the game, Moss questioned why coach Brad Childress didn’t just kick the short field goal rather than try for the touchdown, and he had a point - the Vikings would have gone into the locker room with a 3-point lead and the knowledge that they were getting the ball to start the second half.
That first third-quarter drive is when the field goal came. Favre, who to the surprise of absolutely no one started the game despite ankle and shoulder injuries, scrambled on third and short and found Peterson for a 25-yard gain to put Minnesota in the red zone. But again, the New England defense held up, and a Ryan Longwell 24-yard field goal was all the Vikings got out of the possession.
The Patriots took the lead for the first time - and, as it turned out, for good - little more than 90 seconds later, with Tate the hero again. This time, Brady scrambled for several seconds, searching for an open receiver. Tate, mindful of the lessons the wideouts had learned about staying alive on plays, kept running, and was open along the left sideline when Brady found him.
Tate caught the ball and headed right, outrunning the defense for his first-ever touchdown reception, good for 65 yards.
"I was looking for Wes and then I came back to Brandon. Brandon had just wheeled and went up the sideline and made a great play to uncover," said Brady, who made a spin move on the play. "I just caught a glimpse of him as I turned and threw it up there. He was wide open and made a great catch and run. He’s so dangerous in the open field. That was pretty sweet."
Soon enough it was time for another interesting play, courtesy of Devin McCourty. On second and 1, Favre looked to Percy Harvin, as he did frequently yesterday. Harvin appeared to have made the catch, but the ball popped out, and McCourty was in the perfect spot to swipe it for his second pick in as many games.
"I guess it bobbled a little and I was able to get my hand in there and then the ball bounced straight in the air," McCourty said.
Working on a short field, the Patriots needed just four plays to boost their lead. With run-blocker extraordinaire Stephen Neal pulling from the right, BenJarvus Green-Ellis (who recorded his first career multi-touchdown game) ran through the hole Neal made for a 13-yard score.
Not ready to give up, Minnesota made things interesting on its first drive of the fourth quarter, scoring a touchdown and 2-point conversion to pull within 21-18. In the process, though, Pryor knocked Favre out of the game with a legal hit, driving high into the quarterback’s shoulder. He caught Favre on the chin, and the QB left the game, bloody and woozy from the impact.
It was left to Tarvaris Jackson to complete the touchdown, which he did a play later with a floater to reserve back Naufahu Tahi from a yard out.
New England essentially killed any chance Minnesota had of trying to come back with a 13-play, 80-yard, 5:30 drive that featured heavy doses of Green-Ellis and Woodhead. Green-Ellis got in from 2 yards out.
The result epitomized what Alge Crumpler said was the offense’s objective in the second half: "line up and hit ‘em in the mouth."
"They are as good a front as we’ll see all season, but we knew if we got to the second level [of the D] we’d get big-yardage plays," Crumpler said. "They’re a poor-tackling team. The front four plus [linebacker E.J.] Henderson and [corner Antoine] Winfield, they’re good. [The rest] were the guys we had to make plays on."
Minnesota got the ball back with less than two minutes to go, behind by 10 points. Mike Wright sacked Jackson on first down, putting the Vikings in a 10-yard hole they weren’t able to recover from.
"I really feel good about that win," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "It’s a great job by our players. They really had a great week of preparation. They worked hard this week and the things that we wanted to do, for the most part, in the second half we did."
Belichick’s Patriots used some strange plays to get there, but they presented their coach with a Halloween treat and yet another win.