FOXBORO — It was as dramatic a study in contrasts as you were going to get in the NFL.
On one sideline, you had the Minnesota Vikings, who now appear to be collapsing in on themselves like a dying star: There’s the dysfunctional relationship between the coach and the star quarterback. There’s veteran signal-caller who says he wants to play every week, but looks like he is literally on his last legs, the same quarterback who is embroiled in an off-field sex scandal. There’s the once great defensive line that can’t sack anyone, a wide receiver who is now openly pining for his old team and a coach who appears more than a little overwhelmed by the whole mess.
On the other sideline, there were the New England Patriots, who have negotiated an equally turbulent stretch since the start of camp and somehow have managed to come away the best record in the NFL through that same period: Since the start of camp, the quarterback was in a car crash, and negotiated a new mega-deal. A rookie linebacker was discovered to have a sex tape. Both the star wide receiver and starting running back were traded. And three defensive starters were placed on injured reserve before the regular-season even began.
Both teams have survived an equally exhausting period, but at the end of Sunday’s game — a 28-18 win for the Patriots (click here for the complete recap) — it was clear which team continues to display the grit needed to battle through the tough times, and which team lacked the mental toughness to survive when the game was on the line.
“There’re so many things that have happened over the course of this season: injuries and a guy like Randy leaving, bringing a guy like Deion [Branch] in and [Danny Woodhead] in, who have been big contributors for us,” said quarterback Tom Brady who threw for one touchdown pass and engineered four drives that ended in touchdowns while the Vikings stalled out twice in the New England red zone.
“It’s the way it’s always been around here: It’s really one game at a time and to think past that won’t work on this team. It doesn’t work for any team. With as many young guys as we have on this team, we need to think about today and then tomorrow and not get too far ahead of ourselves.”
It’s not just the fact that the Patriots are winning games. They are winning by playing — for the most part — smart, sound, fundamental football. When key moments arise, more often than not, they are the ones with the answers. They capitalize on mistakes and do a good job minimalizing their weaknesses.
On Sunday against the Vikings, it wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but the Patriots were at their best when they needed to be: They stopped the Vikings on fourth-and-goal early, did just enough to hold Adrian Peterson down with the game on the line and went 4-for-5 on third downs in the fourth quarter as their usual unlikely collection of heroes (BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and Myron Pryor) made important plays in big situations.
In the end, it was enough to allow New England to go to 6-1.
“We’re winning close games. We’re winning tough games, and I think that’s what it takes,” said Brady. “You’ve got to win on the road. You’ve got to beat good teams. You’ve got to win when you’re down. You’ve got to come from behind in the fourth quarter. You’ve got to keep the lead when you have it in the fourth quarter. All those things we talk about. Coach Belichick stands up here and talks to us and that’s what he really preaches. I think it’s nice when we can go out on the field and execute it.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday at Gillette Stadium
THE PATRIOTS HAVEN’T HAD TO CALL ON THEIR RED-ZONE DEFENSE A WHOLE LOT THIS SEASON, BUT IT CAME THROUGH SUNDAY
With the Vikings’ offense looking to take command at the end of the first half and start of the second, the Patriots were able to get two key stops on Minnesota, one at the end of the second quarter and another at the start of the third quarter. The stops buoyed the New England defense, and provided a momentum swing that would go a long way the rest of the afternoon.
First, with 1:07 left in the first half and the game tied at seven, Favre and the Vikings had maneuvered the ball down to the Patriots’ one-yard line. With a fourth-and goal, Minnesota handed the ball to Peterson, who was looking to go off right tackle, but the Vikings’ running back was blown up, knocked back two yards by a group of tacklers that included young linebackers Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes.
“We knew they like to run the ball coming into the game, especially in the red area,” said defensive lineman Vince Wilfork. “With a back like [Adrian] Peterson, who wouldn’t want to run the ball? I think everybody was just tuned in on that play. We got the formation they love to run in. They got the blockers in they like to run behind. I think everybody was just alert. We took advantage of it. That’s something big for us.”
Second, with the scored still knotted at seven on their first drive of the second half, the Vikings were able to put together another impressive drive, getting all the way down to the New England five-yard line. Instead of trying to go for it again on fourth down, Minnesota instead opted for a field goal, a 24-yarder from Ryan Longwell that was good from 24 yards out. So on back-to-back trips inside the Patriots’ 10-yard line, the Vikings were only able to come away with three points, and the New England defense had a pair of very impressive short-yardage victories that proved to be a big momentum shift.
“As a defense, that’s one of our goals — short yards and red area and goal line this year. So to come up with a play like that on fourth and goal down there — basically they walked away with no points – that was big for us,” Wilfork said.
“It meant a lot for our defense. Hopefully, we don’t have people get down there, but if they do, we have the confidence in…all training camp we practiced short yards and goal line. Even now, short yardage we’re always on it. That’s one of the areas we look to improve. I think so far this season, we’ve done a great job in short yardage and goal line areas.”
TOM BRADY’S OFFENSIVE LINE GOT HIM JUST ENOUGH TIME TO SUCCEED
While Brady was under duress for much of the first half — and, as a result, the Patriots were only able to put together one extended scoring drive over the first and second quarters — he wasn’t sacked. He was cuffed around pretty good by the Minnesota pass rush, which hit him three times, but he wasn’t dropped behind the line of scrimmage at all in his 27 dropbacks.
A week after the offensive line yielded four sacks against an impressive San Diego pass defense — and the left side of the line looked particularly shaky — Brady praised their work against the Vikings.
“The o-line played great. No sacks against a front like that is pretty impressive,” said the quarterback, who completed 16 of 27 passes for 240 yards, a touchdown and a 100.8 passer rating. “[I] had great time all day to make some throws and guys in the passing game came up great, too, so it was a great effort.”
With the win, Brady now has won 24 consecutive regular-season starts at Gillette Stadium, closing to within one win of Brett Favre’s post-merger NFL-record 25-game home winning streak from 1995-98. The last time the Patriots lost a regular-season home game in which Brady started was on Nov. 12, 2006 against the Jets.
“It feels great — we won,” said Brady when asked about what it feels like to be 6-1. “It was a tough battle out there. They’ve got a damn good team and we just kept fighting. We made some big plays there in the second half. It’s good to win. It’s good to beat good teams. … It was a battle.”
For the Vikings, it marked the third consecutive game where they did not have a sack. For a team that had so much success getting after the passer last season (their 48 sacks were the best in the league in 2009), the fact that they only have six sacks in seven games remains a mystery to Vikes’ defensive lineman Jared Allen.
“I don’t know where to start. I don’t think we made the plays we had to make,” Allen said. “We were getting guys in their face. I missed a blatant one out there tonight, I went for the ball and he (Brady) brought his arm back and I missed him. I think we need to focus on just getting out there and not try and do too much. It is just one of those years where things are just not going our way.”
RANDY MOSS GETS A LOT OF RESPECT FROM HIS FORMER TEAM
The battle between Devin McCourty and Randy Moss actually turned into a battle between the receiver and a fleet of defenders, a group that included McCourty as well as fellow defensive back Kyle Arrington and a handful of safeties.
Moss demanded lots of attention — he was able to take a lot of defensive backs with him vertically. That, combined with the focus of the New England defense on Peterson (the Patriots stacked the line in hopes of slowing down the running back), created a soft area in the middle of the New England defense between the linebackers and defensive backs. It allowed Percy Harvin to operate underneath and come away with six catches for a game-high 104 receiving yards, including 64 in the first half alone.
But back to Moss. In the end, he caught one pass, an inconsequential eight-yarder in the second half that drew heavy boos from the Gillette Stadium crowd, a and after the game, engaged in a memorable postgame Q-and-A session with himself where he threw his coach under the bus on several occasions and talked with more than a little melancholy about his time with the Patriots.
As for the New England defensive backs, they said after the game the goal was to throw some different looks at their former teammate.
“Yeah, each week we have a different defenses where it calls for different things,” McCourty said. “So we mixed it up a little on defense. Each defense we call is somebody else’s job to do certain things. So we did it.
“[We] just wanted to come out and compete, be aggressive with him when we could and try and jam him at certain times when the defense calls for it, and really to compete because you know at any time Moss can go out and make a big play,” added McCourty. “So it was really trying not to be lulled to sleep by Adrian Peterson running and just staying the course on Moss.”
“It was great. It’s like playing against your big brother,” said safety Brandon Meriweather. “Whenever you get a chance to play against your big brother, you want to limit him in as many ways as you can. That’s what we were trying to do. Me personally, I wanted to be the one to do it, but Kyle [Arrington] did a great job, Devin [McCourty] did a great job, and everybody else who was on him did a great job. I just helped in every way I could.”
DEVIN MCCOURTY ISN’T GOING TO GO WIRE-TO-WIRE AS A ROOKIE
The rookie cornerback had played every snap of the first six-plus game as a rookie before missing a single play in the third quarter Sunday against the Vikings. With 7:55 left in the third, Favre went deep down the Minnesota sidelines for Harvin, but McCourty was shaken up going for a pass breakup on a deep ball. Darius Butler replaced him for a single snap before going back in.
“I’m not worried about streaks. I wished I didn’t have to come out for a play, but it happens,” McCourty said with a smile. “As soon as I got back and a play went by, I told them I was all right.”
It was perhaps the only low point of the afternoon for McCourty, who had four tackles, three passes defensed and an interception. The pick came against Percy Harvin with 4:25 left in the third quarter, the Patriots holding a 14-10 lead and the Vikings on the New England 41-yard line. On the play, Favre delivered a strike to Harvin, but the ball popped out, and McCourty was on it, snatching it away from the Minnesota receiver and racing 37 yards in the other direction.
“It was a little strange the way he went to catch the ball,” McCourty said, who pulled in his second career interception and second in as many games. “I guess it bobbled a little and I was able to get my hand in there and then the ball bounced straight in the air so I was able to intercept it.”
“That was huge,” said Meriweather. “I didn’t even know he caught it until I saw him running with it. It was a great play. Big time players make big time plays in big time games, and he did that.”
In all, it was a banner day for the McCourty family — Devin’s brother Jason also had an interception in Tennessee’s win over San Diego. Devin said with each passing week, he’s starting to feel more comfortable on the field.
“Yeah, I just feel more comfortable out there,” said McCourty, who is now tied for the team lead in interceptions with Pat Chung and Rob Ninkovich. “I’m able to see some things now as they’re coming and playing with James [Sanders] and Brandon [Meriweather] back there, they know so much that at certain times before plays, they’ll yell something down to me that’ll ring a bell to me and then I’ll think about something else that’ll help me out. Playing with those guys and getting more and more experience has helped. Less thinking and going out there and just playing.”
THERE IS A GENERATIONAL SHIFT GOING ON IN FOXBORO
For the Patriots, the majority of really big plays on Sunday were made by younger players — Jermaine Cunningham (22 years old) and Brandon Spikes (23) were at the point of attack on Peterson’s fourth-and-goal scoring attempt. In addition, 23-year-old Brandon Tate led the team in receiving yards with 101. (Three of the top four receivers were 25 years old or under.) The 24-year-old Jerod Mayo led the team in tackles with 14 tackles and a quarterback hit. And the 25-year-old BenJarvus Green-Ellis led the team in rushing with 112 yards.
With each week, it’s becoming clearer there’s a generational shift in the way the Patriots operate. This is no longer the same team that struggled with age over the previous three to five years. Now, a player like Mayo or Green-Ellis is considered a veteran. According to Deion Branch, one of the most eye-opening things for him since he’s been back with the Patriots is the sight of young guys not only playing and playing well, but also listening to the coaches and bringing that to the field on Sunday.
“The most important thing is that guys are taking in what coach Belichick is giving them. They believe in what he’s saying,” Branch said. “We go through the meetings on Wednesday and Thursday, we break down the tape and he gives us what he wants us to do in order to win the game, and I think the guys are very receptive to that. And we’re gong out and putting that on the football field.”
“That’s a lot of the team,” Belichick said when asked about the contributions of the younger players. “You list a lot of guys that are under 25, under 26, whatever the cutoff is — experience, age, you name it. We’ve got a lot of young players, but I don’t really care about all that. What I care about is how the team functions as a unit. And they come in on a daily basis and they work hard. They try to get better. They take the corrections; they try to improve on it.
“It’s not always perfect out there. We make a lot of mistakes, but they keep working harder to get better. They turn the page and they move from one team to the next team and they start all over again each week and go through the whole preparation process. I’ve been impressed with that. I think they play hard on Sundays.”
BRANDON TATE TAKES DIRECTION WELL
On Saturday night, the Patriots’ receivers held a meeting, and talked about the importance of “staying alive” when a play breaks down. On Sunday, Brandon Tate had a chance to put those words into action.
With the Patriots trailing 10-7 with just over eight minutes left in the third quarter, New England faced a second-and-10 at its own 35-yard line. As the ball was snapped, Brady quickly rolled left, flushed from the pocket by the Minnesota pass rush. By this point, it was clear things were starting to break down.
But Brady flipped around and saw Tate flying down the Minnesota sideline. The receiver had started to come back to the ball, then threw an ungodly fake on Minnesota corner Asher Allen, breaking deep and creating enough separation for Brady to loft the ball down the sideline. It dropped neatly into Tate’s arms, and the receiver took off, blowing past Allen and outracing defensive back Madieu Williams to the end zone for his first career touchdown reception.
“He was scrambling and I saw he needed help,” Tate said. “So I acted like I was going to run up and get the DB to come up. I just spun and he saw me and just threw it.”
“That's a pretty basic scramble situation,” Belichick said. “It really was not a very well-run play. But (we) made the best of a bad situation.”
“I was telling him earlier, ‘You’ll be amazed at what a guy like Tom can do, moving around back there in the pocket,’” said teammate Deion Branch. “The plays never really over with. For a guy like Brandon, who took in what we talked about in the meetings and stayed alive, he caught a touchdown.”
It was the highlight of the day for Tate, who ended up with three catches for a team-high 101 yards — he also had a 32-yard reception in the first half where he juggled the ball before impressively hauling it in for the catch against Williams. The career afternoon was the latest milestone in a long road back for the North Carolina, who has missed most of the last two years because of knee injuries.
“I’m just happy to be out there and help my teammates win,” Tate said. “It’s been a hard two years, but I stayed focused and just kept going.”
BENJARVUS GREEN-ELLIS AND RUNNING GAME ARE CAPABLE OF BOUNCING BACK
One week after submitting one of its worst efforts of the season — 22 carries for 51 yards in a narrow win over the Chargers — the Patriots’ running game was able to rebound nicely against the Vikings, churning out tough yardage throughout the second half and rising to the occasion when the offense needed them the most.
It was a slow start for BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead (New England had nine yards on nine carries through the first two quarters), but the second half was a different story. New England generated 113 rushing yards in the third and fourth quarter, and as a team, New England ended up running the ball 27 times for 122 yards, an average of 4.5 yards per carry, and were led by Green-Ellis, who finished with 17 carries for 112 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and Woodhead, who had six carries for 13 yards and a score of his own.
Green-Ellis said the run that provided a spark was the 10-yard gain he had to open the second half.
“I think our first play out of the box in the second half was kind of a positive run play for us, and after that, most of them were mostly positive,” said Green-Ellis. “It’s one of those things, once you get things going, get momentum going and get a rhythm to your offense … when we get in that rhythm, it’s kind of hard to stop.”
Down the stretch, the running game was able to keep the chains moving and help the Patriots convert in the second half: Woodhead and Green-Ellis combined to get the ball on eight of the 13 plays the Patriots ran on their final scoring drive, with Green-Ellis finishing things off with a two-yard touchdown run. On the final drive, Green-Ellis had 62 of the 80 yards, and was responsible for helping work the clock at a time when New England really needed it.
“Once you get to that six-minute mark and you have the lead and you want to get to that four-minute offense,” Green-Ellis said. “You want to get a couple of first downs to keep the clock moving. You don’t want to let an offense like Minnesota get the ball back. And we kept the ball away from them, so that was positive.”
ADRIAN PETERSON RUSHED FOR 92 YARDS, BUT THE PATRIOTS CAN LIVE WITH THAT
The Vikings running back finished with 92 yards on the ground, but it was spread out over 25 carries, which meant he ended with 3.7 yards per carry. While not ideal, it was more than manageable, considering the YPC average was his second lowest of the season and his 92 yards meant he didn’t break 100 rushing yards for the third time in the last four games. It also continued New England’s streak of not allowing a running back to break 100 rushing yards, a run that started at the beginning of the 2010 season.
Peterson had 68 yards in the first half and just 24 in the second, with his longest of the day was a nine-yard gain in the first half. That run came on perhaps his most impressive sequence of the day — on Minnesota’s first scoring drive at the end of the first quarter and start of the second, Peterson finished with 39 of the 76 yards the Vikings registered on the drive, including the one-yard plunge for the touchdown.
As expected to try and counter Peterson’s production, the Patriots flashed multiple looks up front, opening with a lineup that saw Vince Wilfork back at nose with rookie Brandon Deaderick and Mike Wright on the end. New England rotated Gerard “Big Money” Warren back into the mix early on, and also added Ron Brace and Myron Pryor as the game continued.
While Peterson was breaking initial tackle attempts with regularity inside and hitting the second level with relative ease on most occasions, he was not able to get outside, thanks in large part to the containment work done by linebackers like Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon Spikes, Tully Banta-Cain and Jerod Mayo. That group made sure that Peterson wasn’t able to beat the Patriots with big plays — when it came to big-play explosiveness, that nine-yard run was the lowest “long run” he’s had all season.
“They did a good job containing our offense,” Peterson said. “I feel we did a good job of moving the ball. We knew we were coming into a physical defense, and they showed it today. I feel like we did a lot to beat ourselves, and those guys made plays when they needed to.”
‘SIX GAMES GETS YOU NOTHING IN THIS LEAGUE’
Seven games into the season, there is real optimism about this Patriots team. Nearing the halfway point of the regular season, they have the best record in football at 6-1, and thanks to the Jets offensive flameout Sunday against the Packers, they are in first place in the division.
However, despite Sunday’s victory, there was no announcement about a day off Monday. Instead, the veterans know exactly what’s in store for them when they roll into Gillette Stadium on Monday morning.
“We are going to go into this meeting [Monday] and coach Belchick is going to break this film down and he’s not going to throw up all the plays that we made. He’s going to point out the bad plays,” Branch said. “We also have to execute our plays within the offense, defense and special teams. Winning is very important, but so is executing our plays and stuff. We have to get better every week. We must get better. That’s the only way you’re going to continue to win.”
In fact, the mantra “Six games gets you nothing in this league,” will probably be repeated an awful lot around Gillette Stadium this week as the Patriots prepare to travel to Cleveland for a date with the Browns. It was initially stated by Belichick in his postgame press conference, and it was echoed by Brady in his session with the media.
“Coach always says, ‘Six games gets you nothing in this league,’ which is true,” Brady said. “So we’ve won six games, [but] if we have six wins at the end of the year, then we haven’t done anything. There’s a lot of football left. We’ve got a big game coming up this week on the road.”
“We’re just getting ready for Cleveland now,” Belichick added. “I don’t think six games is going to win anything in this league. [It will] take a lot more than that.”