FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots were facing a third and 15 during their second drive of the third quarter. Their offense was going nowhere and Josh Gordon was walking off the field. Tom Brady and Co. had been efficient early with a variety of short passes, sweeps, and screens, but were starting to look predictable and weren’t testing a banged-up Vikings secondary vertically.
So why was their best deep threat going off the field on third and long, as he had on the Patriots’ previous drive, neither of which ended in points?
“You know what? No, I didn’t really question the game plan,” Gordon said after New England’s 24-10 win Sunday. “I just went along with it. It seemed to work in our favor. My trust is in the coaches, I think they trust me. So it worked out.”
That it did, comfortably enough that the main intrigue came and went quickly, midway through the game, before the offense started humming again.
Brady didn’t throw a deep ball until early in the third quarter, but he still put together a game-winning drive that included passes of 24, 15, and 24 yards. Both 24-yard passes went to Gordon, who finished with three catches on three targets for 58 yards and a touchdown despite not being targeted until the 2:20 mark of the third quarter.
Why did it take so long?
“I’m not sure,” Brady said. “It’s just sometimes it goes to different guys, and sometimes more Julian [Edelman], Josh, a lot of guys to get the ball to, so it’s just whoever’s open usually gets it. I’m trying to find the most open guy.”
Bill Belichick said after the game the Vikings used split safety coverage effectively to take away the Patriots’ outside receivers, at least for a time. This wasn’t entirely unexpected. All week, one major talking point the coaching staff delivered to the offense was that they couldn’t get frustrated if the big plays weren’t there. They felt the Vikings’ defense was sound and that they would have to string some long, methodical drives together. Don’t count on a bunch of big plays. Don’t get frustrated.
“So we were just doing what we were supposed to do,” Cordarrelle Patterson said. “When the opportunity came we made big plays.”
For a time, they didn’t need to. The Patriots’ first touchdown drive was surgical, with Josh McDaniels engineering plays that gave Edelman, then Chris Hogan, then Patterson wide-open space to make yards after the catch. New England even converted on a few of the short-yardage plays that have been giving them trouble. They were cooking.
Then the Vikings adjusted, and it seemed for a drive or two like the Patriots had not. Minnesota’s No. 1 cornerback, Xavier Rhodes, was dealing with a hamstring injury and going in and out of the game, and the Vikings’ No. 2 corner, Trae Waynes, left the game with a concussion early in the second quarter. Still, the third quarter was drawing to a close and Gordon still didn’t have a target, despite Brady hitting six different receivers in the first half.
“We don’t know where the balls are going to go, we don’t know what coverage they’re going to be in,” Belichick said. “They did a great job of mixing up the coverages, certainly gave us a lot of split-safety looks that changed some of the reads that we had.”
With the injuries in the secondary, and the Vikings’ defense adjusting to better handle the screen game, things did finally open up. Gordon’s first catch was another short pass, a hitch to the left side that the receiver turned into a 24-yard gain after breaking a tackle attempt by backup cornerback Marcus Sherels.
“When they changed, then we were able to change,” Belichick said.
Brady went right back to Gordon over the middle on the next play. Touchdown. As it happened, it was his 579th career touchdown, which tied him with Peyton Manning for most all time, including the postseason.
Gordon, who was also on the receiving end of Brady’s 500th career regular-season TD pass, may have had to wait a while, but he became a part of history the same way the Patriots have at so many junctures: by making adjustments.