Here's what the Vikings need to do to beat the Patriots in Foxboro

The Vikings must pressure Brady all game long.

Jeff Diamond
November 29, 2018 - 1:13 pm

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After a critical win over the Packers, the road to the playoffs only gets harder this week for the Vikings with a visit to Foxboro to face the Patriots.

New England is the gold standard among NFL franchises over the past two decades with their five Super Bowl victories in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era. They have all the key ingredients for success—outstanding ownership by the Krafts, a tremendous coaching staff led by Belichick and the best quarterback of all-time in Brady.

The Patriots are currently 8-3 and cruising towards an amazing 10th straight AFC East title (with a three game lead on Miami). For Vikings fans who are thinking Sunday's game is more important to 6-4-1 Minnesota and New England won't be inspired, forget it. That's not how Bill Belichick and Tom Brady approach games and the team follows their lead. They're not worried about the AFC East—their focus is on the top seed in the AFC playoffs. New England trails Kansas City by one game but beat them in Week 6 so they're looking to win every remaining game in an effort to overtake them. 

The Patriots record this season is deceptive as they—like the Vikings— have battled injuries to key starters. All pro tight end Rob Gronkowski and leading rusher Sony Michel have each missed three games. In the Patriots' surprising 34-10 road loss in Tennessee three weeks ago, Gronk and both starting offensive tackles were out.

The toughest challenge for the Vikings is winning in Foxboro where the Patriots rarely lose. They’re 5-0 this season and 127-22 in the Belichick-Brady era over the past 18 years. 

The Vikings are 2-2-1 on the road this season and perhaps it's a good omen that both of their wins have come out east (at Philly and the Jets). They will be riding a positive wave after beating their biggest rivals and dealing the Packers' playoff hopes a huge blow. The defense came up big by holding Aaron Rodgers to 198 passing yards, and Kirk Cousins had a good bounce-back game after his difficult night in Chicago. Both of these factors are confidence-builders.  

Gaining a split of the very difficult road games over the next two weeks (at Seattle the following Monday night) would put Minnesota in good position to make the playoffs with a strong last three weeks as the schedule turns more favorable. But the Vikings may have to win all five remaining games in order to overtake the Bears in the NFC North.

Here are my keys for the Vikings to beat the Patriots:

1. Win the turnover battle. Rain is in the forecast so a slick ball could be an issue. The Patriots are +5 in turnover ratio so the Vikings coaches will be preaching ball security, especially to Cousins and Dalvin Cook who will both be handling the ball often. The Vikings defense and special teams have forced 18 turnovers and a couple more this week would be a big help. Plus, as Harrison Smith pointed out on this week's Players Show, his 4th & 1 stop against the Packers' Aaron Jones was "like a turnover."

2. Balanced offense. Cousins and the Vikings passing game led the way against the injury-depleted Green Bay defense but the running game contributed 91 yards to help the cause. New England has been more vulnerable than usual this season in pass defense (ranked No. 25 in the league) and I like Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs against the New England secondary--if the offensive line can give Cousins time to throw, as they did for the most part against Green Bay. The threat of the run is important and a  balanced mix of running and passing is still the best formula for success against any defense. It worked well for the Titans as they ran for 150 yards and threw for 249 yards in their recent victory over the Patriots. Belichick likes to blitz on obvious passing downs so it behooves the Vikings to stay out of third and long. More Dalvin Cook in the short passing game with screens and swing passes also can help slow down the Patriots pass rush, which has struggled with only 17 sacks. 

3. Stop Michel running and James White out of the backfield and double Gronk. The Vikings D has risen to No. 3 league-wide but this is a huge test against an offense with so many weapons directed by Brady.  Michel is coming off a 133 yard rushing day against the Jets so the run defense will need to be as effective as last week when they held the Packers to 82 yards on the ground, and the D played extremely well in the second half). Gronkowski is so big, strong and fast that he requires extra attention. 

4. Vikings must pressure Brady all game long. The pass rush was outstanding against Rodgers and the Packers with four sacks and plenty of hurries. Sheldon Richardson knows Brady and the Pats O-line well from his many years with the Jets, and when he is being disruptive as he was last week (2 sacks and 7 tackles), it makes the Minnesota defense so much tougher to beat. Brady has a quick release so the defensive linemen have to beat their blockers right off the snap and the Vikings linebackers and secondary have to be quick in picking up White, Gronkowski and receivers Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon. It's going to take consistent pressure for the Vikings to win and if Minnesota can apply pressure without blitzing (as they did against Rodgers), that will be a big factor as Brady is so quick to beat the blitz with check downs. 

5. Dan Bailey needs to be on his game. Mistakes must be at a minimum and that means no missed field goals from Bailey. He was 1 for 3 last week, but it's hard to fault him for a 56 yard miss that he should have been able to re-kick from 51, as running into the kicker should have been called. It could be a tough kicking day with rain in the forecast, and Stephen Gostkowski is one of the best kickers in the game and used to kicking outdoors at Gillette Stadium. Minnesota also needs to watch for Belichick's trick plays on special teams.

The pick—I think the Vikings will keep it close but, sorry to say, the Patriots are too tough at home so I'll call  it 27-24 New England. 

Around the NFL Observations: 

1. Philip Rivers—set an NFL record in passing efficiency--an astounding 28 of 29 for 259 yards and 3 TDs--in a blowout win over Arizona for the now 8-3 Chargers. Rivers, who turns 37 next week, is one of several QBs in their mid to upper 30s or older (Brady is 41) who are still playing great. 

2. The Colts and Andrew Luck—beat Miami to run their win streak to five and Luck has now thrown three or more TD passes in eight straight games. He's my Comeback Player of the Year after three years of shoulder issues, but just barely over J.J. Watt (11.5 sacks after missing most of the past two seasons with back and leg injuries).

3. Seattle's big win in Carolina—A 30-27 victory on a late Russell Wilson-led drive was good for Minnesota in that it knocked Carolina down to 6-5 so the Vikings took over the top NFC wild card spot. But the win also keeps the Seahawks in the hunt at 6-5 so they will be tough to beat as the Vikings' next opponent (and in Seattle, one of the NFL's most difficult venues).

Final thought—what a murderer's row of top quarterbacks for the Vikings to face over three consecutive weeks—Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson—three likely Hall of Famers. Brady and Rodgers for sure, and I think Wilson will make it too. 

Jeff Diamond is a former vice president/general manager of the Minnesota Vikings and former president/COO of the Tennessee Titans. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998 after the Vikings’ 15-1 season. Diamond is currently a business and sports consultant who also does broadcast and online media work including co-hosting the Players Show presented by the Select Minnesota Buick GMC Dealers with Harrison Smith or Dalvin Cook and Mike Max on News Talk 830 WCCO on Monday nights live at the Lone Oak Grill in Eagan. He also writes weekly NFL columns for sportingnews.com and does Vikings/NFL podcasts on TalkNorth.com. Diamond makes speaking appearances to corporate/civic groups and college classes on Negotiation, Labor Relations and Sports Business/Sports Management. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffdiamondNFL