As the Chiefs, Rams, and Saints garner all of the Super Bowl hype, the Patriots are quietly marching toward yet another AFC East crown, a first-round playoff bye, and at least one home playoff game come January. If that doesn't scare every other Super Bowl contender on the AFC's side of the playoff bracket, they haven't been paying attention to the NFL over the past two decades of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady's reign. As the Vikings learned Sunday, Foxborough in the winter is just as treacherous as the land beyond The Wall.
On Sunday, the Patriots earned an important 24-10 win over the Vikings behind a dominant defensive effort that completely shut down Kirk Cousins, making him look like an ordinary quarterback instead of . The Patriots are now 9-3. They're in control of the AFC East. And they're only a game behind the Chiefs for the best record in the conference.
The Patriots never trailed on Sunday. They didn't even need Brady to look like Brady. They rode their defense for the entirety of the game, relied on fullback James Develin around the end zone, turned to Josh Gordon when they needed a flash, and let Cousins dump the ball off over and over again. Develin scored two touchdowns from in close, Gordon caught the game-winning touchdown in the third quarter, Brady spread the ball around, and the defense limited Cousins to 4.6 yards per pass attempt and picked him off twice in the final five minutes.
The Patriots jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead, journeying 81 yards on eight plays on their first drive. It was Develin who got the scoring started with a run from in close. The Patriots extended their lead to 10-0 with a field goal midway through the second quarter, which wrapped up a 15-play, 68-yard drive that burned over eight minutes of game clock. It wasn't until the final seconds of the second quarter that the Vikings -- after Dan Bailey missed yet another field goal -- got on the board with an Adam Thielen touchdown. They tied the game late the third quarter with a field goal after the Patriots missed out on a chance to extend their lead to six points with their own missed field goal.
And then, just as the Vikings drew even, they fell into a hole they weren't able to climb out of.
The Patriots responded immediately to the deadlock, finally opening up their passing game with a four-play, 75-yard scoring drive, during which Gordon finally got involved with two catches for 48 yards and a go-ahead touchdown. They forced a punt. On their next series, they went 50 yards on six plays. Develin breached the end zone again to give the Patriots a two-score advantage. In the fourth quarter, the Patriots maintained their lead by picking off Cousins twice as the Minnesota quarterback was unable to keep pace against what has been a vulnerable defense.
Cousins stinks it up
Another big game, another disappointing performance by Cousins.
One of the knocks against Cousins to this point in his career has been his inability to play up to his potential in high-leverage games. Perhaps it's just a silly narrative. Maybe it's unfair to Cousins, who spent the past six years of his career on mediocre-at-best Redskins teams. Ignoring the larger implications of this loss and how it feeds into the larger story of Cousins' career, it's completely fair to criticize his performance in this game alone.
Spending nearly the entirety of his evening dumping the ball off underneath, Cousins completed 32 of his 44 pass attempts for 201 yards, but he averaged only 4.6 yards per attempt, threw only one touchdown compared to two picks, and finished with a 70.3 passer rating that might actually flatter his performance.
Speaking of dumping the ball off:
He missed Thielen deep for a big gain at the beginning of the third quarter, overthrowing him by a hair. On a crucial fourth-and-11 with just over six minutes remaining in the game, when the Vikings trailed by two touchdowns, he targeted Laquon Treadwell three yards past the line of scrimmage. Treadwell was promptly tackled seven yards shorts of the sticks. In desperation mode, he got picked twice in the final five minutes, underthrowing Aldrick Robinson in the end zone and later telegraphing a late throw to Thielen over the middle.
There's tough to find any positives in his performance.
Two weeks ago, Bears, but at least that performance can be excused due to the dominant state of the Bears defense. Last week, against the Packers in a game the Vikings needed to win. But Cousins struggled Sunday against a defense that hasn't been all too good. Entering the game, the Patriots' defense ranked 19th in DVOA, 22nd in yards allowed per game, and 12th in points allowed per game. They shouldn't be holding most teams -- much less the Vikings with Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Dalvin Cook, and so on -- to one touchdown.against the
But the Vikings managed only 10 points. They really only looked good on their touchdown series that came at the end of the first half, when they were forced to drive the ball downfield.
They scored three more points the rest of the way. As a result of their offensive ineptitude, they failed to gain a game on the Bears, who lost to the Giants but remained a game-and-a-half up on the Vikings in the NFC North.
Patriots spread the ball around
Brady's performance on Sunday won't earn him MVP consideration even though he's the most famous quarterback on the planet who plays for a 9-3 team that's been to two straight Super Bowls. Like Cousins, he spent much of his evening dumping the ball off underneath. Unlike Cousins, the approach did at least lead to some -- though not too much -- success.
Brady finished 24 of 32 for 311 yards (9.7 YPA), one touchdown, one pick, and a 102.5 passer rating. It's worth noting that 42 of his yards resulted from a meaningless check down to James White at the end of the first half. Brady also threw an uncharacteristically bad interception in the fourth quarter when the Vikings were all but dead.
Brady's underwhelming stat line shouldn't be pinned entirely on him. It was clear that the approach was to use an endless number of screens and underneath throws to a variety of targets. Nine different players caught at least one pass. Out of the wide receivers, Gordon led the way with three catches for 58 yards.
Meanwhile, the Patriots ran the ball 39 times for 160 yards and two touchdowns. Sony Michel spearheaded the effort with 17 carries for 63 yards while Rex Burkhead and James White combined for 46 yards on 13 carries. Develin, out of all of the Patriots' ball carriers, scored twice.
At this point, it's all Develin does when he touches the ball.
Against a good Vikings defense, the Patriots spread the ball around, threw the ball short, and tried to establish the run. They didn't find too much success, but with their defense playing as well as it did, they didn't need to blow the Vikings' defense away. They did enough against a top defense. They were good enough.
They -- dare I say -- did their job.
Gordon provides a spark
After the Patriots watched their 10-point lead evaporate, they finally opened up their offense. Josh Gordon didn't catch a pass until late in the third quarter, but his entrance was worth the wait.
On the Patriots' go-ahead series in the third quarter, Gordon caught two passes for 48 yards. Both receptions netted 24 yards. The second put the Patriots ahead for good.
Gordon hasn't been a superstar since the Patriots traded for him. His numbers won't jump out. But he did spark the Patriots offense at an important moment in the game.
Dalvin Cook a lone bright spot
Despite the offense's struggles, Vikings running back Dalvin Cook shined. He carried the ball nine times for 84 yards, which means his average yards per carry (9.3) more than doubled Cousins' average yards per pass (4.6). As a frequent target of Cousins' dump-offs, he caught eight passes for 22 yards (2.8 yards per catch), which is really the best way to sum up the Vikings' flawed offensive approach on Sunday.
Don't blame Cook for catching passes underneath without space ahead of him. Blame Cousins and the Vikings' offense for being unable to push the ball downfield. And blame them for abandoning the running game in what was a close game for most of the second half.
At halftime, Dalvin Cook was averaging over 12 yards/carry (5/62).— The Daily Norseman, a Minnesota Vikings blog (@DailyNorseman) December 3, 2018
He got four carries in the second half.
It was 10-7 at the half and 10-10 with two minutes left in the third quarter.
Vikings' kicking issues persist
A week after he missed two field goals against the Packers, Dan Bailey's problems continued on Sunday. On the Vikings' second series, Bailey pulled a 48-yard field goal wide.
Dan Bailey is just 3 of 7 this season on field goals between 40-49 yards.— Chris Tomasson (@christomasson) December 2, 2018
Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski returned the favor by missing a 48-yard field goal of his own midway through the third quarter. And Bailey did rebound by drilling a 39-yarder in the third quarter to tie the game at 10-10 before it all unraveled for the Vikings over the final 15 or so minutes.
A historic Brady scramble
On the Patriots' second series, Brady scrambled for a key third-down conversion. More importantly, he finally hit the 1,000-yard mark in his career.
It's been a long time coming.
Tom Brady now has 1,000 career rush yards.— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) December 2, 2018
• Took 265 career games to do so, the most by a player since 1970
• Is the oldest player to reach 1,000 career rush yds since 1970
• Has averaged 3.8 rush YPG and 1.7 yards per carry in his career@Patriots#GoPatriots
Tom Brady reached 1,000 career rushing yards today in his 265th game…— Taylor Bisciotti (@TaylorBisciotti) December 2, 2018
Cam Newton = 23 Games
Russell Wilson = 31 Games
Marcus Mariota = 45 Games
Vikings botch celebration
As a perfect symbol of their ineptitude on offense, check out how the Vikings chose to celebrate their lone touchdown of the game. They couldn't even get the celebration right.
Oh and by the way, the Patriots held Thielen to 28 yards on five catches. Thielen did at least provide another highlight-worthy play when he got into a shouting match with Belichick, but even Belichick won that battle.
The Patriots' attention shifts to Miami, Jay Cutler led the Dolphins to an out-of-nowhere win over the Patriots. That game can be streamed on fuboTV (Try for free). After facing the Dolphins, the Patriots will close out the year against the Steelers, Bills, and Jets. That Steelers game could decide which team winds up with second seed in the AFC., when
As for the Vikings, the schedule doesn't let up. They travel to Seattle next week to face a Seahawks team that's on a postseason path. They'll finish out the season against the Dolphins, Lions, and Bears. That Week 17 game could determine the fate of the NFC North.
Feel free to relive the game with our live blog below.