Tom Brady and the Patriots will look to win their first game of the season Sunday in Minnesota. (Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Here’s everything you need to know about Sunday’s contest between the Patriots and Vikings:
Our three favorite matchups on the afternoon:
1. Quarterback Tom Brady against head coach Mike Zimmer: Brady was corralled last year when the Patriots went into Cincy, and in a monsoon, were shut down by the Bengals defense. (The game saw Brady’s consecutive games streak of touchdown passes halted at 52.) Zimmer was the architect of that Bengals defense, and was able to bother Brady to a point where the quarterback suffered one of the worst games of his career (18-for-38, 197 yards, one interception). Zimmer has now moved on to become the head coach in Minnesota, but as colleague Mike Petraglia adroitly pointed out here, Brady will likely be a lot of the same elements he saw last year against the Bengals — not a lot of blitzing, but with steady and consistent pressure from a four-man front designed to be physical with the quarterback. It will be up to Brady to get the ball out as fast as possible against a fast and physical defensive front ‘ don’t look for a lot of five-step drops.
2. The Patriots offensive line against the Minnesota defensive front: The New England offensive line really struggled in the heat of South Florida in last week’s opener, allowing four sacks on Brady and six hits on the quarterback. As we said in No. 1, Brady should expect to see good pressure from the Vikings defensive front. Two things to look for this week that could help out the Patriots’ offensive line: one, for as much as we talk about Rob Gronkowski as a pass catcher, his ability as a blocker is undersold. As he continues to work his way back to full strength — he played roughly half the snaps in the opener in steamy South Florida — his presence as an end of the line blocker will provide a boost when it comes to pass protection. And two, expect a heavier reliance on the running backs, both in blitz pickup and helping when it comes to the running game. The Patriots not only struggled with pass protection on the edge, but from this viewpoint, where Logan Mankins‘ skill set was really missing Sunday was on the ground. According to Football Outsiders, in 2013 the Patriots were one of the few teams to run better from two-back formations (5.0 yards per carry) than from single-back formations (4.6 yards per carry). On Sunday, fullback James Develin played 46 snaps. Look for him to be more of a presence Sunday.
3. Bill Belichick against Norv Turner: The Patriots coach and new Minnesota OC go back a long ways. In the 12 meetings since Belichick took over the Patriots prior to the start of the 2000 season, he’s enjoyed a 10-2 edge against Turner-coached offenses. That includes games when Turner was offensive coordinator with the Chargers, Dolphins and Browns, as well as head coach of the Raiders and Chargers. (That record moves to 10-5 if you include Belichick’s time as a head coach with the Browns and an assistant with the Patriots and Jets.) It’s important to note that four of those wins came as the result of late-game or overtime magic on the part of Tom Brady (including last year’s remarkable comeback against the Browns where New England posted 16 fourth-quarter points in a 27-26 victory in Foxboro), but Belichick’s healthy advantage certainly suggests that’s he’s consistently been able to figure out Turner’s offenses, regardless of the locale.
4. Under the radar opponent who Patriots’ fans need to know: Tight end Kyle Rudolph isn’t mentioned as one of the elite-level offensive options for Minnesota, but the 6-foot-6, 260-pounder has developed into a nice security blanket for the Minnesota passing game in his three-plus years in the league. Known as a player who has displayed proficiency both as a blocker and pass catcher, he had 30 catches in eight games last year before a foot injury prematurely ended his season. (That was on the heels of a 53-catch season in 2012 that produced nine touchdowns.) A relatively dependable option in the passing game, he could benefit if the Patriots end up focusing their attentions elsewhere. While linebacker Jamie Collins is a question mark heading into Sunday’s game because of a thigh issue, he could see the bulk of attention on Rudolph if he’s good to go.
5. By the numbers: Per Pro Football Reference, the Patriots and Vikings have played 11 times and New England holds a 7-4 series lead. However, in those games, Minnesota has averaged more points per game in those 11 contests than the Patriots, 21.5-20.9.
6. Quote of note: “We know him. He knows us.” — Belichick, talking about former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel, who is now the starter in Minnesota. Cassel spent the first four years of his career with the Patriots (2005-2008), and will be making his first career start against a Belichick-coached defense
7. Patriots fans should be worried about… without Adrian Peterson in the lineup, Minnesota finding a way to Cordarrelle Patterson the ball by any means necessary. The 2014 season is still in its infancy, but the multidimensional wide receiver has already shown himself to be a really nice offensive threat for the Vikings — in the opener against the Rams, he caught three passes for 26 yards, but did the majority of his damage on the ground, coming away with 102 yards and a touchdown on three carries. Opinions vary on how best to slow him down, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see Darrelle Revis spend a sizable bulk of the afternoon trailing Patterson, at least when he’s split out to the right as a receiver. (Some numbers on Patterson: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Patterson is the second player since 1950 to gain at least 100 rushing yards in a game with three or fewer rushes. Patterson has gained at least 50 yards rushing in each of his last three games — according to ESPN Stats & Information, Dexter McCluster is the only other wide receiver since 2001 to have three games with at least 50 rushing yards and no other wideout has done it in back-to-back games during that span.)
8. Vikings fans should be worried about… the Patriots getting any sort of support in the passing game beyond wide receiver Julian Edelman and running back Shane Vereen. Some of this goes back to the offensive line issues, but New England needed more offensive depth Sunday against Miami. Edelman and Vereen combined for 11 of Brady’s 29 completed passes last week, and were the only two offensive players who were able to consistently move the chains for New England when they were on the field. (Including the preseason, Edelman has caught a whopping 16 of the 18 passes that have been thrown in his direction this year.) Edelman was almost completely shut down in the second half, and while Vereen was able to chip in with a team-high 36 rushing yards, there was precious little offense from anyone else on the afternoon — including Danny Amendola, who couldn’t get any separation for most of the day, and Brandon LaFell, who someone didn’t catch a single pass despite being targeted six times. (For what it’s worth, Brady often appeared to be trying to force the ball into Rob Gronkowski — the big tight end was targeted 11 times, but only had four catches.) The Patriots need someone else to step up on the offensive end on Sunday.
9. One more thing: The Patriots and Vikings have a relatively short history, but their recent games have almost always been entertaining. In 1994, it was an epic at old Foxboro Stadium, as Drew Bledsoe attempted 70 passes in a remarkable 26-20 overtime win over the Vikings, a team led by Warren Moon and included old pal Cris Carter. (It was the second straight OT win New England, which also upended Minnesota in 1991 by a 26-23 count in extra time.) The 2006 Patriots — who had been castigated for the better part of the first month because they didn’t have much of a receiving corps — came into the Metrodome the night before Halloween and croaked the Vikings, 31-7, as Brady put up 345 passing yards in the rout. And in 2010, the Vikings came to Foxboro less than a month after the blockbuster trade that sent wide receiver Randy Moss to Minnesota. With Brett Favre under center, Moss back in town and a 4 o’clock start on Halloween all in the mix, it was a circus atmosphere. Favre was knocked out of the game by Myron Pryor, Moss professed his undying love for Brady and Belichick after the game, and New England came away with a resounding 28-18 win.
10. Prediction: In the wake of their season-opening loss to the Dolphins, the Patriots now find themselves in danger of falling into an 0-2 hole to start the season. History tells us that when faced with a similar dilemma, New England had found a way to figure it out. But it’s not being overdramatic to suggest that this is an early-season gut check game for the 2014 Patriots. How they respond in this contest will ultimately tell us a lot about what sort of mental toughness this team possesses. From this viewpoint, this appears to be the sort of team that’s capable of answering the bell. It won’t be easy — Patterson has a unique skill set and the sort of positional versatility that will make him very difficult to contain — but the call is New England 27, Minnesota 21.