Here are 10 things to watch for in Sunday’s Patriots-Vikings game:
Randy Moss vs. Devin McCourty: It’s important to remember that the Patriots play their cornerbacks by sides — they don’t send a defensive back out there and tell him to cover one guy. That being said, it’s likely that McCourty will be the one lining up opposite Moss much of the afternoon. The rookie is now the Patriots' top corner, and as a result, will probably be tested by the Brett Favre/Moss duo on several occasions this Sunday afternoon.
He’s ready for the challenge — he talked this week about the lessons he learned from Moss when he faced him on a daily basis in training camp.
"Sometimes after a play, he’d give little tips to all the corners,” McCourty told reporters Thursday. “Just something that, as a wide receiver, he might not like or other receivers might not like, different things that can help you out when you’re out there playing corner.”
One thing worth watching is how Moss works his routes. NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said it’s clear that Moss doesn’t have the offense down yet — he said Moss and Favre were playing “street ball” last week against Green Bay. It’ll be interesting to see if another week makes any difference in his incorporation into the Minnesota offense.
The safety dance: The Patriots have been forced to do some shuffling at the safety position the last two games. Against the Ravens, the Patriots were without veteran James Sanders, and Brandon Meriweather was briefly yanked after his helmet-to-helmet hit against tight end Todd Heap. However, Jarrad Page went down with a calf injury, and Meriweather was soon back in the lineup.
Then, last week against the Chargers, Pat Chung went down early with a bruised knee, forcing New England to turn to newly activated Sergio Brown. In his first NFL game, he finished with four tackles, none bigger than his third-down stop of Chargers tight end Antonio Gates late in the fourth quarter.
“We talked to him at the end of training camp about things that he needed to work on and improve on — things on special teams and things on defense — and he’s done that,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Brown. “We recognize our practice players of the week, guys that had the best week of practice, and he’s shown up there, too.”
Based on attendance reports at practice, Page will be sidelined for at least another week with a calf issue. Meanwhile, Chung looked to be progressing as the week went on — he was back in football gear by Thursday, and could be back in the lineup. If he can’t go wire-to-wire, expect the Patriots to lean heavily on Sanders at free safety, while Meriweather and Brown will patrol the other safety spot.
Getting the offense back on track: Despite the fact they came away with 23 points and the win last week against the Chargers, statistically, there was very little to like about the Patriots’ offensive attack: New England had just 159 yards in the passing game and 51 yards on the ground. The Patriots were going against the best passing defense in the league, but the overall production didn’t sit well with quarterback Tom Brady.
“There are certainly some things they did that were very challenging for us. At the same time, I’d like to think we can make some of those plays, too,” said Brady when asked about the effort against San Diego. “Some days, you have a bad day at the office. I think that’s the way you put it. We did in the first half and we played better in the second half.”
The Vikings defense is not comparable to where the Chargers were entering last week, at least not statistically. (Minnesota is seventh overall in average yards allowed, 11th overall in rush defense and 13th overall against the pass.) As a result, it should provide New England with more of an opportunity to move the ball on offense. Look for the Patriots to try and get a spark by spreading the field and looking for Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Aaron Hernandez on a series of short and intermediate routes.
Jumping on the Vikings early: In that same vein, the Patriots would be wise to throw it early. According to Nuggetpalooza, the Vikings are allowing an average of 78 passing yards in the first quarter this season, the highest in the league and on pace to be the highest since at least 2000. In addition, Minnesota hasn’t scored on an opening possession all year, and the Patriots have outscored opponents 31-16 in the first quarter this season. All signs point to a quick start for New England.
Battle of the kick returners: For the Patriots, Brandon Tate hasn’t run one back for a touchdown since Oct. 4, but continues to be one of the best in the league when it comes to kick returns. Last week, he set the New England offense up consistently with excellent field position — against the Chargers, the Patriots’ average starting field position was their own 44-yard line, the best in the NFL. New England’s average start through six games is the 32.6-yard line, the best in the league. And Tate is second in the AFC in average return yardage with 31.7, and is the only AFC kick returner to have taken two back for a touchdown this season.
On the other side, Minnesota’s average start of the 31.8-yard line is third best in the league, and Percy Harvin is ninth in the league with an average of 27.2 yards per return. (He took one back 95 yards earlier in the season.) However, while the Patriots remain extremely competitive in kick coverage (Stephen Gostkowski has 14 touchbacks and opponents have an average starting field position of the 24.7-yard line), the Vikings are not as successful — teams have an average starting field position of the 28.7-yard line (26th in the league) and Minnesota only has one touchback all season.
Stopping Adrian Peterson: The running back is without peer. He ranks second in the NFL with 684 yards, with an average of 4.9 yards per carry. He has exceeded 100 all-purpose yards in all but one game this season, when Dallas found a way to rein him in for 71. However, the Patriots have shuffled their defensive line the last few games in an attempt to get more beef up front and try and slow down opposing running backs. The combination of Vince Wilfork at defensive end, Gerard “Big Money” Warren at the nose and rookie Brandon Deaderick at the other defensive end spot should be out there in the same spots again in an attempt to try and slow down Peterson. But it’s going to take much more than the front three to slow down Peterson. The outside linebackers in charge of setting the edge — Jermaine Cunningham, Tully Banta-Cain, Rob Ninkovich and Shawn Crable — will all play a big role in making sure he stays inside.
Can the Vikings get to Tom Brady? Last season, Minnesota was one of the best in the league at getting to the quarterback, finishing the 2009 regular-season with 48 sacks, best in the league. This season, the Vikings have struggled to get any sort of consistent pressure on opposing signal-callers — through six games, they have just six sacks, tied for 30th in the NFL.
“I think their pass rush is very good,” Belichick said. “Quarterbacks and offenses, it looks like, are making a conscious effort not to throw the ball, to get rid of it, to throw the quick passes, the screens, things like that where they’re not really under that kind of duress and holding the ball. We all know what can happen when these guys have enough time to get to the quarterback, so I know a lot teams aren’t taking a long time to execute.”
The New England offensive line has played well this season, but is coming off its worst outing of the season, yielding four sacks of Brady. One matchup worth keeping a very close eye on is Matt Light vs. Jared Allen — speed rushers usually give Light fits, and if there’s one game for Allen to use in hopes of getting on track, it could be this one.
“I think that line and Tom Brady, they work well together,” Allen said when asked about the Patriots offense. “It has been pretty stable as far as guys coming in and out, and Matt is a good player. I’ve played against him in the past and had a little success against him. But, again, they work well. They know Tom’s timing and what he’s going to do with the ball. They do what they have to do and they work well as a unit. When you are working as a unit it’s hard to isolate one guy out.”
Favre vs. Brad Childress: This is watchable on a number of levels, and speaks to the dysfunction inherent within the Vikings franchise. Who is making the call as to whether or not the quarterback will start? Is the quarterback running the show? Will the coach try and exercise his control over his star quarterback by benching him, even if he can play … despite the fact that he lobbied for him to come out of retirement in the first place? And if Favre struggles against the Patriots like he did the previous week against Green Bay, is he risking another tongue-lashing from Childress?
“I think every head coach has different styles to motivate their players," Brady said on WEEI. "Coach [Bill] Belichick, he doesn't ever do that to anybody. It doesn't matter if I threw seven interceptions, he would never do that. But there's no doubt that he's going to bring that up to me at some point, probably right away, in front of the team, as well. He's going to make the point that he needs to make in order to try to get his players to play better.”
Winning the takeaway battle: The Patriots have turned the ball over only six times (four interceptions, two fumbles) through six games, tied for third-fewest in the league. New England is plus-six in the takeaways department, third best in the AFC. The Vikings have lost the ball 15 times (10 interceptions, five fumbles) and are minus-six in takeaways. (Another note on this topic, courtesy of Nuggetpalooza: this season, the Patriots aren’t fumbling — 0.53 percent of touches; ranked second — and Minnesota isn’t forcing fumbles —1.03 percent of opponent touches; ranked 28th.)
Turnovers played a big role for both teams last week: Last Sunday night at Lambeau Field, Minnesota committed three turnovers leading to 14 Packer points. Meanwhile, the New England defense came up with takeaways on four consecutive San Diego drives in the first half, allowing the Patriots to win despite being outgained, 363-179.
Presumably, the Patriots could add to these numbers against Favre, whose 10 picks through six games are tied for fourth in the league. But historically, Favre has always been pretty good at taking care of the football when playing against New England. In seven career games against the Patriots, Favre has just three picks and 12 touchdown passes. (Overall, he’s 128-for-209 — 61 percent — with 1,438 passing yards.)
A fun afternoon: The Halloween atmosphere, the return of Moss, the sideshow circus that is Favre and the fact that the Patriots will be wearing their 1985-circa throwbacks will all contribute to what will almost surely be a fun afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
It’ll be the first time that the Patriots will be playing at home on Halloween — New England has a 2-5 record all-time in games played on Oct. 31 — and as a result, the Patriots are encouraging fans of all ages to wear Halloween costumes. In addition, the fist 1,000 children ages 12 and under to enter the stadium will get a free bag of candy.
“We recognize many of our younger fans will be foregoing trick or treating to attend the game,” said Patriots spokesperson Stacey James. “We hope they still wear their costumes. If so, they may find themselves on a 164-foot HD video board.”