After a 1-2 start, who could have ever predicted this for the 9-3 Patriots?
Twenty-four thoughts on the Patriots’ 24-10 victory over the Vikings Sunday . . .
1. The final score of the Patriots’ win — their ninth of the season and eighth in nine games despite all of the recent handwringing about their pending decline — was probably predicted by a few wannabe prognosticators here and there. But some of the plot points and protagonists in that victory were beyond prediction unless you happened to own a functioning, high-end crystal ball. This one was weird and fulfilling at once.
2. Some highlights: Fullback James Develin, who entered the game with one carry on the season and eight in his six-year career, ran for two touchdowns, rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson was a stalwart on an excellent day for the defensive backfield, Rob Gronkowski had as many penalties as catches (3), Tom Brady picked up a career rushing milestone, and Vikings receiver Adam Thielen introduced a touchdown celebration that was so lame that it’s a wonder Kevin James didn’t star in it.
3. Elandon Roberts’s molar-rattling hit on Dalvin Cook on the second play from scrimmage might have been the hardest delivered by a Patriots defender this year. Straight out of a 2001 Bryan Cox highlight reel.
4. Actually, this might have been the best tackling game by the Patriots all season. They were especially adept at limiting the Vikings after the catch, never more so than on Stephon Gilmore’s fourth-down stop-him-in-his-tracks takedown of Laquan Treadwell to end a Vikings drive with 6 minutes and change left.
5. Josh Gordon didn’t have a reception until there were a little more than two minutes remaining in the third quarter, but was he ever in turbo mode when Brady started to go his way. Gordon began the Patriots’ 4-play, 75-yard drive that put them up 17-10 in the third quarter with a 24-yard catch, and he ended it with a 24-yard scoring grab as well.
6. On the next possession from the Minnesota 12, Gordon nearly juked and twisted his way into the end zone after a short catch before he was hauled down at the 2, setting up Develin’s second touchdown.
7. He had three catches for 58 yards overall, and now has 34 catches for 618 yards and three touchdowns as a Patriot. I was skeptical of trusting him, but he has been the best-case scenario of that they hoped he would be when they acquired him from the Browns.
8. I’ll hardly be the first to say that it felt like the Patriots had dominated the first half and should have led by more than 10-7 at halftime, but it was pretty clear why they didn’t. They struggled in a couple of third-and-short situations that would have extended drives , and the Vikings offense took them apart after the 2-minute warning.
9. The Vikings went 74 yards on seven plays in just 1 minute 37 seconds to get on the board just before halftime. Thielen beat what appeared to be the entire McCourty family for his first catch of the game, a 5-yard touchdown that he punctuated with a touchdown celebration — mock baseball rundown — so dopey you’d think he’d hired Peyton Manning as his choreographer.
10. Kirk Cousins went 6 for 6 on the drive. I didn’t think he was especially impressive otherwise in the game, but I’d take him over his three most statistically similar quarterbacks: Blake Bortles, Derek Carr, and Josh Freeman. That said, if Cousins is worth $28 million a year, then Brady should be paid in franchises, plural.
11. Thielen started yelling at Bill Belichick for some reason after the coach threw his red flag to challenge a spot midway through the fourth quarter. Maybe Belichick told him his earlier touchdown celebration was pathetic. It appeared Belichick responded by something along the lines of “Kindly cease commiserating, good sir” to Thielen there. But I’m not a lip-reader.
12. Brady’s 5-yard run on the Patriots’ second possession put him at exactly 1,000 yards rushing for his 19-year career. The best stat associated with the not-so-fleet feat: It took him 265 games to do, an average of 3.8 yards per game. This is for amusement more than context, but that’s roughly half as many yards per game as Cordarrelle Patterson averages per carry (7.5) in his career.
13. Amusingly, Brady made sure while taking a knee on the final snap that he walked up to the line of scrimmage as not to take a loss and fall back to triple-digits in rushing yards.
14. Brady, who finished 24 of 32 for 311 yards with a touchdown and an interception, also had a few more conventional milestones Sunday. His touchdown pass with the 508th of his regular-season career, tying Brett Favre for third all-time, and the 579th including the playoffs, tying Peyton Manning for the most overall.
15. The Patriots’ first possession didn’t exactly start auspiciously — a 5-yard false start penalty on Gronkowski — but they sure got their act together in a hurry. Brady found Julian Edelman for 13 yards on second and 15, then Chris Hogan for 18 yards on third and 2. Brady followed with consecutive completions to Patterson (24 yards), Rex Burkhead (15 yards), then Edelman picked up another 15 yards on a handoff before Develin’s first touchdown.
16. Seventy-five yards on five plays, all of them double-digit gains? Offensive football doesn’t get much more effectively efficient than that.
17. Hogan’s stats were modest — two catches, 20 yards — but he had a good day, making the 18-yard catch to keep the first drive alive, then converting a third-and-1 in the fourth quarter on a tough 2-yard grab.
1 8. Broadcast thought: Joe Buck gets more grief than any high-quality play-by-play man I’ve ever heard, but I like it when he calls Patriots games with Troy Aikman. It has a big-game feel, probably because we’re just about as used to them calling Patriots Super Bowls as we are the occasional regular-season broadcast on Fox.
19. I’d put Buck/Aikman a close third in a ranking of broadcast teams we’d most want to call the game we’re watching, behind NBC’s Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth and CBS’s Jim Nantz and Tony Romo. The fourth spot on this list last year would have been ESPN’s Sean McDonough/Jon Gruden tandem. This year’s Monday Night Football booth would be a great distance lower on the list.
20. Vikings kicker Dan Bailey, who missed two of three field goal attempts last week against the Packers, so badly hooked a 48-yard attempt in the first quarter that he looked like a civilian trying to make a field goal to win a new Ford Focus during a halftime promotion.
21. Had Bailey made that kick it would have closed the Patriots early lead to 7-3. Instead, the Patriots built their lead to 10-0 when their kicker, the sometimes underappreciated Stephen Gostkowski, booted a 20-yarder. That might have been a chip-shot, but it was his 35th consecutive make inside of 50 yards. That streak ended in the third quarter when he went wide right on a 48-yarder.
22. Gostkowski did reach the 100-point milestone in a season for the 12th time as a Patriot, and he now has 1,714 points in his career, 14th in NFL history. I’d say he has an outside shot of catching all-time leading scorer and predecessor Adam Vinatieri (2.570), but it’s obvious Vinatieri is going to be kicking as long as football exists.
23. Another Sunday, another outstanding James White performance. He had five catches for 26 yards and seven rushes for 92 yards, including a 42-yarder right before halftime. He’s become such a great player. The most important run of the day for the Patriots — other than Develin’s two TDs — might have been Sony Michel’s third-and-1 conversion with 12:42 left to play given the recent struggles on third and short.
24. The Patriots are 9-3, with home games against the Bills and Jets and road battles with the Dolphins (this Sunday) and Steelers ahead. I’ll say it: After the 1-2 start, the disappointing loss to the Titans right before the bye, and the assorted injury and personnel issues they’ve had along the way, they’re still going to end up with 12 wins, maybe 13, and the No. 1 seed in the AFC.