FOXBOROUGH — A Patriots home game in December is a sure thing.
It’s like Tommy Heinsohn saying the Celtics are getting robbed by the officials . . . a breakdown on the Green Line . . . or Yaz hopping into his car and screeching out of Fenway seconds after delivering a ceremonial first pitch.
You can bank on it, almost without exception.
Since Tom Brady became Bill Belichick’s starting quarterback in 2001, Belichick and Brady are 33-4 in Foxborough in December.
On Sunday afternoon/evening, everything went exactly the way it always goes for the Patriots at home in the 12th month. As AFC powers continued to get weaker (abusive running back Kareem Hunt was dumped by the Chiefs on Friday), the Patriots resumed their inexorable ascension to the top seed in the conference with a dominant, 24-10 dissection of the wide-eyed, overrated Minnesota Vikings.
“It was a great win, that’s a good team,’’ the ever-generous Brady said.
“We had a good complementary game,’’ Belichick deadpanned. “I thought our defense did a really good job. We had a lot of guys step up and play well. This was a good win against a good football team . . . I thought the crowd was into the game.’’
It’s beginning to feel like another AFC Championship game in store for New England. After four months of questions and three losses to weak teams, the Patriots’ defense looks strong and the offense is healthy. Just wait for the Chiefs to lose one more game. They will. They still have tough games against the Ravens, Chargers, and (at) Seattle.
Leading up to this game, diabolical Belichick pumped the tires of Vikings coach Mike Zimmer. Listening to Bill, I couldn’t decide if Zimmer was the new Vince Lombardi or perhaps a mere George Halas. Bill loves to spray cheap perfume all over upcoming opponents, but praise for Zimmer and the 6-4-1 Vikings seemed over the top, even by Belichickian standards.
In the end, of course, Zimmer was just another gerbil on the wheel in the Gillette cage, pumping his little legs and going nowhere. He clearly wasn’t ready to see the Patriots sending out seven defensive backs for a third-down stop. He wasn’t ready for much of anything Belichick threw at him.
It was clear from the jump that the Patriots were hitting their normal December stride. After winning the coin toss and deferring (new wrinkle there), the Patriots forced a three-and out, then drove 86 yards in eight plays to take a 7-0 lead on James Devlin’s 1-yard rush. Candy. It was like watching Jordan Spieth take over a miniature golf course. In one stretch, on three consecutive plays, Brady completed passes to wide-open receivers — no defender within 15 yards of Tom’s target. We saw a ton of misdirection, screens, even a shovel pass.
“Seven guys running it, eight guys catching it, makes it hard to defend us,’’ said Brady, evermore a still-life in press conference boredom. “ . . . We’ve got to take advantage of all parts of the field. That’s going to be key for us.’’
The Patriots were all about ball control, killing the visitors with a thousand paper cuts. New England wide receivers were not part of the early game plan. A chip-shot field goal by Stephen Gostkowski made it 10-0 and it looked like the Patriots would carry the shutout into halftime until overpaid Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins woke up in the final 2:34 before intermission. When Cousins lofted a TD pass into the arms of Adam Thielen, it was 10-7 at halftime. The Vikings tied it on a 39-yard field goal late in the third.
It didn’t stay tied for long. As if insulted by the notion of losing a lead at home in December, Brady drove the Patriots 75 yards in a mere four plays after the tying field goal. Brady’s 24-yard strike to Josh Gordon vaulted New England into the lead for good, 17-10.
The rest was easy. Trey Flowers had a big third-down sack of Cousins, Brady took the team another 50 yards to make it 24-10, and the Patriots intercepted Cousins twice. There was also some Walt Colemanesque officiating and a little dustup featuring Belichick yelling at Thielen when Thielen complained that the Patriots were buying time (was Patrick Chung really hurt?) before Belichick threw a challenge flag.
“It’s not cheatin’, there’s no rule against it,’’ said Thielen. “Just an interesting time for a guy to go down. [Belichick] can hate me all he wants. I’m still going to be the same kind of person I am.’’
“Bill’s fiery,’’ said Devin McCourty. “We see it every day.’’
Smart fans took advantage of the blowout, beating the traffic and getting home in time to watch the Steelers and Chargers. It’s all about January for these Patriots now.
Four regular-season games remain and three are layups against AFC East bums. God bless the Warhol. The only remaining drama in this Patriots regular season will be Dec. 16 at Heinz Field when we expect Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin to lose their football minds and do something amazingly stupid — like when the Steelers were offsides on their last three plays in their loss to the Chargers last night. Pittsburgh’s acts of panic and stupidity will turn a certain Steeler victory into a soul-crushing defeat and probably assure the Patriots of a first-round bye. And the AFC Championship game might go through Foxborough once again.
Where the Patriots almost never lose.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org