The Minnesota Vikings had held Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to just three points in two-and-a-half quarters since their opening drive touchdown, so Brady did what Hall of Fame quarterbacks do — attacked the weakest links.
With Trae Waynes concussed and Xavier Rhodes’ hamstring less than 100 percent, Brady initiated big plays at Rhodes’ and Waynes’ replacements — as well as Rhodes himself — to slam the door on a simmering Vikings rally.
On the first play of New England’s go-ahead touchdown drive, Brady found wide receiver Josh Gordon on a five-yard curl that should have been quickly eradicated by Marcus Sherels for a short gain, but Gordon broke away from a missed Sherels tackle for a 24-yard pickup.
The 31-year-old Sherels was presumably the next man up after Waynes’ concussion and played more than he ever has in the Mike Zimmer Era. It was just Sherels’ ninth appearance since 2014, and most of his previous reps have come in mop-up duty.
Sherels’ value has always been greatest as a special teamer; less so, for his play as a defensive back. But the Vikings wanted to preserve Rhodes and stuck to their plan to rotate him out, opening the door for Sherels’ inclusion.
“It was a battle, but no matter what I’m going to fight through for my team,” said Rhodes after the game. “We were just being cautious about it.”
Gordon got free three plays later for a 24-yard touchdown, finding a soft spot behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties after the Vikings miscommunicated when passing him off on a post route.
The heavy dosage of Gordon continued as he helped launch New England’s next touchdown drive, which began at midfield. Brady went after rookie Holton Hill on the first play of the series, drawing a 20-yard pass interference call on the Vikings rookie, who contacted Gordon early as they both went for the ball along the right sideline.
After three touches by running back Sony Michel, Gordon got the call again on a quick pass to the left while he was singled against Rhodes. Rhodes missed a tackle as Gordon dragged several Vikings down to the 2-yard line to set up James Develin’s touchdown.
“I don’t think we tackled very well tonight defensively,” said head coach Mike Zimmer.
Brady ended the game with 311 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 102.5 quarterback rating. In a near carbon copy of their previous win against the New York Jets, the Patriots hit the final minutes of the third quarter in a low-scoring tie game before flipping a switch, scoring two touchdowns and pulling away for a 14-point win.
For a team as gifted as Patriots at exploiting weaknesses and taking away strengths — making teams played “left-handed,” as Zimmer said all week — it shouldn’t be surprising that Brady and Co. attacked the vulnerable cogs of Minnesota’s defense at the game’s most important juncture.
“There are certain situations where we have to do better,” said linebacker Anthony Barr. “In the third quarter, we have to get off the field and give our offense the ball back.”