Fans can learn a lot from how the Minnesota Vikings play the New England Patriots on Thanksgiving night. After the Dallas Cowboys completely outclassed them on Sunday, the Vikings have a chance to show that that game was a fluke.
If the Vikings can come out and play tough against a well-coached 6-4 Patriots team, they can show they have the mental fortitude to finish the season out strong with eyes on a championship. If they falter again, they might be in for a late-season collapse, a la the Arizona Cardinals last year.
This is an important week to show what kind of team the Vikings will be. So, let’s look at three challenges the Patriots will present on Thursday.
The Cowboys are first in the league in sacks; the Philadelphia Eagles are third. Those are the only two losses on Minnesota’s record right now. Sandwiched between Dallas and Philadelphia on the sacks list? The Patriots at No. 2. Matthew Judon is the NFL’s sack leader with 13 quarterback takedowns and heads New England’s pass rush.
It’s no coincidence that the Vikings struggle most against good pass-rush teams. Kirk Cousins doesn’t handle pressure very well. His PFF ranking goes from 14th in a clean pocket (81.9) to 30th under pressure (52.0). That’s a huge drop-off, and the Patriots might be able to expose this weakness once again.
However, having a top pass rush does not guarantee a victory over the Vikings. The New Orleans Saints have the fourth-most sacks in the NFL, and they lost to the Vikings in Week 4. Although the Vikings will be missing star offensive tackle Christian Darrisaw with another concussion, they should at least have a better game plan to compensate for that than they did against the Cowboys.
New England ranks fourth in the league in pass yards allowed, giving up only 188.3 yards per game through the air. Of course, nobody is surprised that the Patriots defense is good. Bill Belichick is one of the greatest defensive minds of all time. His signature move is identifying the opposing team’s biggest threat and neutralizing them, making the rest of the team’s weapons beat them instead.
Justin Jefferson is going to be Belichick’s target. In victories, he has averaged 126.8 yards per game. In losses, Jefferson only averages 40.5. That’s not to say that the Vikings don’t have any other options. If the Patriots attempt this strategy, expect good games from Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, and T.J. Hockenson.
Minnesota’s offensive talent will have a chance to shine in this game, and they will have to prove they can still have a good game if Belichick neutralizes Jefferson. Thursday’s matchup should be an interesting chess match between Belichick and Kevin O’Connell when the Vikings have the ball.
New England’s storyline has been their dominant defense compensating for their mediocre offense. The Patriots are 25th in yards per game (317.6) and 20th in points per game (21.3). This trend was exemplified by their game last week against the New York Jets, where a last-second special teams touchdown gave the Patriots a 10-3 victory.
The Patriots don’t have a single player who ranks above 15th in their position in yardage or touchdowns. But they have a competent running attack as a team. New England has the 17th-most rushing yards per game, and their top two rushers, Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris, average 4.5 and 4.6 YPC, respectively.
That is enough to pose a threat to a Vikings squad that is still missing Dalvin Tomlinson on the defensive front and just got destroyed by the Cowboys for 151 yards on the ground. If the Vikings can limit the run game, they should have no problem handling New England’s offense.