FOXBOROUGH — Frustration, irritation, confusion, resignation, we’ve seen them all before from Patriots opponents in the den of disappointment that is Gillette Stadium in December. It was the Minnesota Vikings’ turn on Sunday. Riding brilliant coaching design and stellar execution, the Patriots forced the Vikings to lose their cool and a football game.
The Patriots defense had the Vikings’ potent pass catchers exploding at Patriots coach Bill Belichick after a disputed fourth-and-1 conversion for Minnesota in the fourth quarter that Belichick challenged — with an assist from a convenient injury stoppage for safety Patrick Chung — instead of generating explosive plays in the passing games. While Belichick was on the receiving end of some choice words from Vikings receiver Adam Thielen, who thought Chung was feigning an injury, Belichick’s defense made sure Thielen didn’t catch much.
The NFL’s leader in receptions entering Week 13 with 93, Thielen was limited to just five catches for 28 yards. Minnesota’s final offensive play of the game was a Kirk Cousins pass intended for Thielen that was intercepted by Duron Harmon, a fitting ending to a fine performance by the Patriots defense.
The Patriots kept the Vikings off balance on both sides of the ball and got under their skin in a 24-10 victory. This was the vintage Patriots team we’ve seen at times this season, not the vulnerable one we’ve also witnessed. It was perfect timing because Sunday was the start of a three-game stretch for the Patriots (9-3) where they can carve out their identity and solidify their place atop the short list of AFC teams with realistic aspirations of lifting the Lombardi Trophy in Atlanta in February.
Will the real Patriots defense please stand up? It’s hard to figure out the Patriots defense — and not just for opposing quarterbacks like Cousins. They lock down Aaron Rodgers and contain arguably the best wide receiver duo in the NFL, Thielen and Stefon Diggs, with exacting efficiency. But then they’ve been lit up by the likes of Marcus Mariota, Blake Bortles, and Matthew Stafford, all of those games on the road.
“I think it just has to come down to consistency, effort, and being ready to play,” said safety Duron Harmon, who extinguished the Vikings’ hopes with a fourth-quarter end zone interception. “When we come ready to play, I feel like we have a really good defense. We got good players all the way across the board. That’s what we have to continue to model our games after, games like this.
“When we come out ready to play, when we feel challenged, we just got to come out each and every week like this. Knowing the guys that we have in this group I know that we’re going to be ready for the rest of the year.”
The talk coming into this game was about the Vikings defense, which came in tops in the league in third-down defense and red zone efficiency. The Patriots defense left Minnesota in the same state as Gillette Stadium an hour and a half after the misty game ended, a complete fog.
The Patriots limited the Vikings to one touchdown, two pass plays of 20 yards or more, and just three third-down conversions in 12 attempts. The 278 yards of offense for Minnesota was the second-lowest total this year for a Patriots opponent. Thielen and Diggs, who played through a knee injury, combined for 10 catches for just 77 yards.
All of those numbers are impressive, but what spoke volumes about the Patriots’ performance was when a frustrated Thielen fulminated at Belichick with 8 minutes and 52 seconds left in the game and the Patriots leading, 24-10. Instead of Minnesota’s famed Skol chant, Thielen scolded Belichick for what he felt was a “cheap” attempt to buy more time to decide whether to challenge Latavius Murray’s fourth-and-1 run for a first down via an injury timeout for Chung. Minnesota’s rags-to-riches receiver started screaming at the New England sideline. Belichick was captured by cameras telling Thielen to shut up in profane fashion.
Belichick’s challenge was unsuccessful as the call on the field stood. But the Patriots were successful in forcing Minnesota off the field on fourth down seven plays later. The Patriots got off the field and in the heads of the Vikings with ease on Sunday.
“Obviously, I got to keep my cool,” said Thielen, who entering the drive that led to his shouting match with Belichick had just one catch for 5 yards on four targets, albeit a touchdown. “I’ve got a lot of respect for him and what he’s done, and I can’t lose it like that. But I just thought it was interesting timing for a guy to go down when it was a close play that could’ve been reviewed, so for me, I just lost my emotions.”
Thielen didn’t back down from the fact he thought the Patriots were possibly engaged in chicanery.
“I let the emotions get the best of me because it’s a smart football play if you are in that situation, why not?” he said. “It’s not cheating because there’s no rule against it from a guy going down, and I don’t know if he was hurt or not. He might’ve been hurt, that’s fine, it is what it is, but like I said, just interesting timing for a guy to go down when it’s a close play.”
The mental advantage the Patriots had over the Vikings wasn’t just psychological. It was schematic as well. On one third down in the first half, the Patriots defense lined up with seven defensive backs and just one player with his hand in the dirt, Trey Flowers. They used the McCourty brothers to bracket Thielen at times with Stephon Gilmore covering Diggs. They turned a cautious Cousins into Captain Checkdown, as he completed 32 of 44 passes for 201 yards, 6.3 yards per completion, and tossed two interceptions.
“They did a great job,” said Thielen. “They didn’t let me get going. Obviously, they’ve got some really good players, they got great coaches, and we knew that coming into the game. We knew that they were going to have a great scheme for us. We know that they have great players, and they did a great job.”
The Vikings were lucky to only trail, 10-7, at the half. They were discombobulated and, perhaps, intimidated by the venue, outfoxed and outplayed. Minnesota missed a 48-yard field goal in the first quarter after waiting for holder Matt Wile to join the field goal unit on the field.
Even their touchdown celebrations were out of synch, as an attempt at a keep-away celebration following Thielen’s TD grab with 15 seconds left in the half fell flat. Minnesota finally found its Foxborough footing and tied the game, 10-10, with 2:20 left in the third. The Patriots then pulled away behind Tom Brady and a dominant defense.
The Patriots will have to squeeze the life out of opponents like this if they want to squeeze another Super Bowl berth out of this season.
Consistency is the catch-phrase for the Patriots, especially defensively. We’ve seen what they’re capable of doing. The question is whether they’re capable of reproducing it week after week and on the road, when needed.
The only ones more frustrated than Thielen by the Patriots defense are the Foxborough Faithful, who can’t reasonably predict what version of the defense they’ll get.
If it’s the defense that manacled Minnesota, then the Patriots’ margin for error this season is more significant than we thought.