Patriots’ defense bailed out the offense in win over Vikings
FOXBOROUGH — Instant Analysis from the Patriots’ 24-10 win over the Vikings:
■ This was a big statement game for the Patriots’ defense, which bailed out the offense on a day when Tom Brady wasn’t his sharpest. The defense bottled up Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, and didn’t let Kirk Cousins push the ball downfield. Cousins had just 201 passing yards on a paltry 4.7 yards per attempt, while Thielen had five catches for 28 yards (plus a touchdown), and Diggs had just five catches for 49 yards. By early in the fourth quarter, Thielen had only one catch for 5 yards. It was classic Patriots, taking away a team’s top option and making them play lefthanded. And the Vikings couldn’t handle it.
■ The Patriots also gave the Vikings a taste of their own medicine, doing a great job of disguising the pass rush and confusing the offensive line. Adam Butler’s sack in the first quarter pushed the Vikings back to a 48-yard field goal, which they missed. Trey Flowers had a huge third-down sack early in the fourth quarter to force a punt. And on fourth and 11 late in the fourth quarter, the Patriots sent a big blitz at Cousins, forcing an early throw that led to an easy stop.
If the Patriots’ defense can play like this every week, this team can make a Super Bowl run.
■ Thielen had gone for 100 yards in nine of his 11 previous games this year, but Jason McCourty did an admirable job bottling him up all day. However, Jason and his twin brother Devin had their double teams beaten badly twice by Thielen. One resulted in a 5-yard touchdown, the other an incompletion when Thielen couldn’t come up with a fingertip grab. Stephon Gilmore also did a great job taking Diggs out of the game.
■ There was a direct correlation between Josh Gordon being involved and the Patriots’ offense moving the ball. Gordon didn’t even get a target until late in the third quarter, and the Patriots had struggled for most of the evening, scoring just 10 points. But then Brady hit Gordon two times for 24 yards each (including a touchdown) at the end of the third quarter, hit him for 26 yards in the fourth quarter, and also drew a 20-yard pass interference penalty.
■ Weird game overall for Josh McDaniels. The Patriots came out on fire on the first drive, with receivers running wide open on three different plays and Brady having no problem slicing up the Vikings’ defense. But then it became a gadget-fest of screens and end-arounds, and the Patriots’ offense hit a major lull. An inside handoff on third and 5? A trick direct snap to James White on third and 1? The play-calling looked like McDaniels didn’t have any confidence in the Patriots’ short-yardage run game, or in the offensive line’s ability to give Brady enough time.
■ And for good reason — the run game was subpar. Sony Michel had 63 yards on 17 carries, and the Patriots had to hand the ball off to James Develin twice on the goal line, because neither Michel nor anyone else could punch it in.
■ Brady didn’t look like himself for most of the game, either. He wasn’t pushing the ball downfield, threw one third-and-5 play into the dirt (it looked like a screen play that got blown up), and threw a bad interception in the fourth quarter as the Patriots tried to run out the clock. His final numbers look solid — 24 of 32 for 311 yards, one touchdown, one interception, and 9.7 yards per attempt — but it was mostly on screens and White’s 42-yard play as time expired in the second quarter. It wasn’t until Brady started pushing the ball downfield to Gordon that he looked like his old self.
■ Brady did do a good job of spreading the ball around, hitting nine receivers, including all three running backs and his fullback. But some key players were noticeably quiet. Rob Gronkowski only had three catches for 26 yards. Julian Edelman only caught 3 of 8 passes for 25 yards, and had a bad drop on third down in the first quarter. And Chris Hogan was almost nonexistent again, catching an 18-yarder on the first drive and catching just one pass for 2 yards the rest of the way.
■ One player who didn’t even make a catch? Phillip Dorsett. The team’s refusal to use him this year is baffling. He had a solid start to the season but has become a ghost since Gordon’s emergence in October.
■ The most entertaining exchange of the game came in the fourth quarter when Thielen and Bill Belichick were barking at each other. Thielen didn’t seem to appreciate that Patrick Chung was slow to get off the field with an injury, which gave Belichick enough time to challenge the spot of the ball. Thielen exchanged some colorful words with Belichick, and the coach seemed to respond with some colorful language of his own.
For what it’s worth, Belichick lost the challenge, and the Vikings picked up the first down. Belichick was 0 for 2 on challenges, though I don’t blame him for attempting either. I thought both were good challenges, but the officials disagreed.