NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
GAME PLAN: The Patriots have been plenty balanced offensively, but their production has dropped in recent weeks. They left a lot of points on the board Sunday in San Diego despite forcing four turnovers. The Vikings have been sharp defensively despite their poor record, so it'll be a challenge for the Patriots to move the ball effectively on Sunday.
What would help is better accuracy in the passing game. Tom Brady needs to spread the ball among his receivers and tight ends, and perhaps get his running backs involved, too. The Patriots can't rely too much on Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, as evident from Sunday's fourth quarter in which neither back could pick up significant yardage.
As far as the defense is concerned, the Patriots need to prepare for Brett Favre regardless of what the injury report says. This will be a challenge for the secondary; Favre has a tendency to be erratic, but he'll pick apart the Patriots if they're not playing tight enough defensively. One of their biggest problems has been giving receivers too much space in the open field. Favre throws hard and can squeeze the ball into tight spaces, so the defense needs to be tighter.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots head coach Bill Belichick vs. Vikings QB Brett Favre. This is The Genius vs. The Gunslinger, one of the great coach vs. quarterback matchups. Favre has had success against Belichick-coached teams in the past and has actually won twice at Foxboro in the last eight years, including an overtime win two years ago while with the New York Jets.
Patriots CB Devin McCourty vs. Vikings WR Randy Moss. Without question, Moss wants to prove the Patriots made a mistake by trading him. McCourty, meanwhile, has emerged as a solid defender and savvy ballhawk in recent weeks. He came up with an acrobatic interception this past weekend against San Diego and could be the answer in terms of defending Moss. The Patriots might double-team him from time-to-time, but if and when they play one-on-one coverage, McCourty should be the guy.
Patriots LT Matt Light vs. Vikings DRE Jared Allen. By now, it's no secret Light struggles against elite pass rushers. Allen is still one of the best at getting to the quarterback. Light will have his hands full, and if he can't keep Allen off Brady's back, it'll be a long afternoon for the Patriots.
INJURY IMPACT: The injuries at running back are starting to take their toll. The Patriots need help, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead won't be good enough over the long haul. They failed to move the chains in short-yardage situations, which is putting more pressure on the passing game. Unless Fred Taylor makes a miraculous recovery, the Patriots will be thin again in the backfield.
GAME PLAN: The Patriots set the blueprint for beating the Vikings during the 2006 season when they came into the Metrodome and spread out the Minnesota defense.
New England left that night with a 31-7 victory and sent the Vikings into a four-game tailspin. These teams are much different four years later, but the Vikings know that coach Bill Belichick will have something up his sleeve.
New England is atop the league in points per game average, and quarterback Tom Brady figures to go after a secondary that had some issues last Sunday night against the Packers.
Rookie Chris Cook struggled as the left cornerback in the nickel package before being replaced by Frank Walker, and the Vikings gave up a season-high 379 yards passing.
Veteran Deion Branch, who returned to the Patriots after four seasons in Seattle, has 13 catches for 137 yards and one touchdown in two games.
The Vikings are going to have to be better against the pass in this game or Brady will attack.
Offensively, this figures to be the Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin show.
That's especially true with the injury to Brett Favre. Favre or Tarvaris Jackson could start but the Vikings' best bet might be to hand the ball to Peterson, who is second in the NFL in rushing, and try intermediate passes to Harvin. The Vikings are seventh in the NFL in rushing and the Patriots' run defense is ranked 11th.
The Patriots are 30th in the NFL against the pass, so if Peterson does establish the run game there could be a few deep shots available for Moss.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Vikings WR Randy Moss, who has caught 12 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns in three games with Minnesota, vs. Patriots CBs Darius Butler and Devin McCourty. Moss is going to be out for revenge in a big way in this game and it will be interesting to see how Bill Belichick and Co. decide to try to stop him. Butler, a second-year player, and McCourty, a rookie, are almost certain to get safety help when they are matched up against Moss. The issue is that the Patriots are still going to need to find a way to slow Percy Harvin, who has been playing very well of late, not to mention running back Adrian Peterson. Given all the Vikings' weapons, Moss should be averaging more than 13.8 yards per catch.
--Vikings CB Antoine Winfield, who moves inside on passing downs, vs. Patriots WR Wes Welker, who has caught 37 passes and three touchdowns this season. Winfield is the starter at the left corner but has been shifting inside in the nickel. Chris Cook replaced Winfield as the left corner to open last Sunday's game at Green Bay but he struggled and was benched in favor of Frank Walker. The expectation is that Winfield will continue to be the Vikings' choice to go against the slot receiver and that means he should be seeing Welker on a regular basis in this game. This could be an excellent matchup between two veterans.
INJURY IMPACT: Brett Favre hasn't missed a start since the 1992 season and until he isn't out there to begin Sunday's game nobody is going to believe that the quarterback's streak will come to an end. If Favre can't go, Tarvaris Jackson will get the start. Jackson is 10-10 in his career as a starter but has had problems with the blitz in his five-year career. How much has he learned from watching Favre? We might soon find out.