Preview: Straight-Up Solid

The Patriots have some holes that could be exploited, but they also have solid veterans who take inexperienced players under their wings and help fit them into the New England system. We preview the key Patriots at each level as the Vikings prepare for their Monday night showdown.

Just about every Vikings fan looked at the first seven games on the schedule and said that if the Vikings could finish that brutal stretch with a 4-3 record, they would be in great position to make a playoff run. Not only have they accomplished that, but, with a win over the Patriots under the glare of the national spotlight Monday night, the Vikings will send notice to the rest of the league that the road to the Super Bowl is going to involve Minnesota.

Getting past the Patriots won't be easy. They are the closest thing the NFL has to a dynasty in the era of free agency, having won three Super Bowls in five years and, at 5-1, still in the mix among the top teams in the league. With all the changeover that has taken place in New England over the past couple of years, as players search for greener pastures with free-spending franchises, the one constant remains quarterback Tom Brady. He has thrown 10 touchdown passes and has been good for two touchdowns in four of his six games this season. An intelligent signal-caller with a knack for reading defenses, Brady has built a reputation for putting his passes on target and has thrown just three interceptions this year. If he gets comfortable in the pocket, he could tear apart the Vikings, so the first goal is going to be pressuring Brady and making him get rid of the ball early. If he is afforded time in the pocket, it could be a long day for the Vikings defense.

The Patriots will look to control the clock with a power running game that features the two-headed beast of Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon. Dillon has been a workhorse since coming to New England from Cincinnati, but has been pushed into a time-share with the rookie Maroney – who makes his first return trip to the Metrodome since ending his college career with the University of Minnesota. Through six games, Maroney has carried the ball 86 times for 361 yards – a 4.2-yard average. Dillon has 82 carries for 328 yards. Bill Belichick believes the two make a strong combination and will mix them up by series or even within series. Dillon has the veteran savvy and short-yardage experience to extend drives with first downs and end them with touchdowns. Maroney has the speed to take any carry and turn it into a 40-yard run. Stopping this combination will be a tall order, but the Vikings have the top-rated run defense in the league for a reason.

If the Patriots are forced to pass, it will be to a group of unheralded receivers that don't have a lot of star power but get the job done. Aside from veteran Troy Brown, this is an entirely different unit from last year. The team signed Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney as free agents, made a trade with the Raiders to get Doug Gabriel and used a second-round draft pick to select Chad Jackson from Florida. Each of the receivers has his own skill set, but, as has been the case in New England for many years, no single receiver has stepped forward as a go-to guy week in and week out. They share the wealth among themselves, as do tight ends Daniel Graham and Ben Watson, who see a lot of time on the field in two-TE sets or with Watson as a stand-up slot receiver. It will be difficult for the Vikings to game-plan against the Pats receiver corps, because you never can tell from one week to the next who will be Brady's hot receiver for any particular game, making all of them dangerous.

Up front, only two of the current starting offensive linemen for the Patriots started all 16 games last year – guards Logan Mankins and Stephen Neal. The rest of the line has been a patchwork of youth and injuries. Center Dan Koppen missed seven games last year with a rotator cuff injury and left tackle Matt Light missed 13 games with a broken ankle. Both are back and appear to be 100 recovered from those injuries, but each has been dinged with minor injuries this season. The biggest change is at right tackle, where fifth-round rookie Ryan O'Callahan has taken over the starting job with Nick Kaczur sidelined with a shoulder injury. He could be the player the Vikings defensive front looks to attack, because playing offensive tackle is always a risky position for a coach looking to let a rookie learn on the job. Expect to see the Patriots give O'Callahan help with a tight end and possibly Dillon or Maroney getting chip blocks to prevent the Vikings from overwhelming the youngster.

The biggest question of the defensive side of the ball for the Patriots is going to be availability of Richard Seymour, the All-Pro defensive end who makes the Pats 3-4 defense hum. Listed as questionable with an arm injury, Seymour lines up with third-year nose tackle Vince Wilfork and left end Ty Warren – both former first-round draft picks – to give the Patriots a fierce pass rush and a run-stuffing nose tackle in the run game. Add to the mix fifth-year DE Jarvis Green, who leads the Patriots with 4.5 sacks, and New England boasts a versatile defensive front that can switch from the 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment without missing a beat. The Vikings offensive line has the size and strength to neutralize this group, but they must remain focused on not allowing the big plays that have been the hallmark of the Patriots defense – and most of that is the result of the guys up front.

To make a 3-4 defense effective, it is the responsibility of the linebackers to fill in the running lanes as well as be active in the short passing game, and few teams have as many veteran stars as the Patriots. The four starters have a combined 46 years of experience with Roosevelt Colvin (eight years) and Mike Vrabel (10) on the outside and Junior Seau (17) and Tedy Bruschi (11) in the middle. While age has taken away some of their speed and burst, they make up for it with relentless pressure and knowledge of the game. The Vikings of 2006 have made a living with the short pass and this will be a critical matchup. If the Patriots' aging linebackers can keep the Vikings short-pass offense at bay, it could be a long night with short drives for the Vikings offense.

The Patriots have an infusion of young talent in the secondary with second-year corner Ellis Hobbs, a pair of fourth-year players in cornerback Asante Samuel and safety Eugene Wilson to team with 13-year veteran Rodney Harrison – who is the glue of the secondary. Harrison is one of the great intimidators of the NFL and gets wide receivers to come up with alligator arms on deep passes over the middle. Harrison isn't the quarterback of the secondary that the Patriots had hoped he would be, which has resulted in some big plays being given up in the passing game. Ten-year veteran Chad Scott serves as a nickel back, but this is a group that can be exploited, because Hobbs is still very raw and Samuel doesn't have the ideal speed coaches look for in a corner. There are chances the Vikings can beat this unit with a big play, but with all the injuries the Vikings have at wide receiver heading into the game, that may not be an issue.

If the Vikings can take out the Patriots, they will improve to 5-2 and send a message to the rest of the NFL that will be watching Monday night that there is a changing of the guard in the NFC and that the Vikings will be a team to be reckoned. A loss will be a big step backward, so don't be shocked to see the Vikings come out firing with every trick in their arsenal to send a warning not just to the Patriots, but to the entire NFL in what could well be the biggest regular-season game the Vikings have had since 2000.


Brad Childress vs. Bill Belichick—
It's rare when you have a critical matchup being the head coaches, but both Childress and Belichick got their chances to be head coaches because of their innovations in impressive schemes. Childress is an offensive coordinator by trade and calls the Vikings' offensive plays, while Belichick makes defensive overhauls from one week to the next. As they match wits from the sidelines with their human chess pieces, they will be the Matchup to Watch Monday night.

Belichick has never been satisfied with past success and has been known to completely make over his defense depending on opponent. For the Vikings, that is going to mean trying to neutralize Chester Taylor, who has averaged 25 carries and 123 yards in the four Vikings wins, as well as pressuring Brad Johnson. What that will entail is likely bringing blitzes straight up the middle from the linebackers and occasionally the safeties. Earlier this week, Belichick opted to practice behind closed doors so nobody from the media could sell out what he has planned for the Vikings.

On the other side of the ball, Childress is likely to pull out some offensive tricks the Vikings haven't shown much, if at allm this season. While you can expect a steady diet of Taylor, don't be surprised to see the Vikings attempt to air out a few deep passes to keep the Patriots defense honest and use reverses and rollouts to avoid middle pressure.

For Childress, being a head coach is a new experience. For Belichick, his trip to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio is likely already punched with three Super Bowl titles. The battle of wits between these two head coaches – one a defensive genius and the other a budding offensive mind – will play itself out for 60 minutes Monday night. Whichever coach designs a better scheme to frustrate the other will likely come out on the winning end of the game, making this an unusual Matchup to Watch this week.

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