Few teams have personified the Jeckyl and Hyde nature of the NFL this season more than the New England Patriots. After starting the year 3-0 and scoring 115 points in those games, the Pats dropped four straight to put their season in jeopardy. Just when you thought they were down and out, they won consecutive road games at Buffalo and Chicago and are at home for the first time in a month trying to extend the Vikings' road losing streak to 16 games.
The Patriots of last season saw young quarterback Tom Brady emerge as a starter when Drew Bledsoe went down to injury. While his job last year was primarily to keep mistakes at a minimum, he has become the offensive leader this season. He became the first quarterback in the league with 20 touchdowns this season and has shown no sign of letting up. He can throw the short, medium and deep pass with equal precision and will likely find the Vikings secondary to his liking and attempt to pepper Minnesota with as many as 50 passes if the situation calls for it.
While Brady has revitalized the offense, last year's star — running back Antowain Smith — has become New England's invisible man. While still on pace to rush for 1,000 yards, he has averaged just 15 carries a game — a steep drop from last year. He still is capable of being the focus of the offense, but with the Pats looking to pass much more his role has been the one sacrificed. Third-down back Kevin Faulk has assumed a much larger role in the offense as a receiver, but the running game has become something of an afterthought and is averaging less than 100 yards a game.
The receivers have been the beneficiaries in the change of offensive philosophy, and the Patriots have plenty of talent to go to. Troy Brown is coming off a Pro Bowl year and is well on his way to another, while the speedy David Patten and rookie Deion Branch aren't far behind. The Patriots will spread these three out often and stretch a defense. With each capable of taking a pass the distance, the Vikings have to be wary about how they can scheme their way into a huge play.
At tight end, New England has a logjam. Veterans Christian Fauria and Cam Cleeland are getting most of the time now, but the Patriots are very high on rookie Daniel Graham and expect him to emerge before the season ends. With this many weapons, it's no wonder the Pats are pass-happy.
One of the reasons the Patriots have had offensive success is the consistent play and health of their offensive line. Unlike the Vikings, New England has started the same five guys all year — second-year man Matt Light and Greg Robinson-Randall at tackle, veterans Joe Andruzzi and Mike Compton at guard and Damien Woody at center. The group is an ideal mix of youngsters at the tackles and center spots and veterans at the guards to make up for momentary lapses. It was a formula that made them a champion and one that still works.
Defensively, the Patriots don't have a lot of big-name talent but find a way to get the job done. After switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, New England has found its defensive niche. Up front, they have players who can provide good pressure in defensive ends Willie McGinest and Anthony Pleasant and tackles Bobby Hamilton and Richard Seymour. A veteran group, especially at the ends, they can wear down if on the field too long so, especially coming off three straight road games and a Sunday night game at Oakland that left them bruised and tired, expect to see the Vikings run at this group often.
The linebackers are also a veteran unit that ranks among the best in the AFC. Last year these guys got to know how their teammates would react and became a cohesive unit. There hasn't been a big letdown this season. In the middle Tedy Bruschi has fought through injuries but remains a tenacious run stopper. On the outside, injuries have allowed veteran pickup Roman Phifer to move in and join Mike Vrabel. When healthy, this group is extremely solid, but keeping them healthy has been a consistent problem.
The strength of the Patriots defense remains the secondary, where talented veterans are everywhere. On the corners, Ty Law has Pro Bowl talent, and while 13-year veteran Otis Smith is a little long in the tooth, he is capable of making big plays. At the safeties, Lawyer Milloy and Tebucky Jones are a pair of big hitters who make going over the middle a dangerous proposition. Depth isn't a problem either, as coach Bill Belichick added veteran Terrell Buckley. If teams want to go with three- and four-receiver packages, few teams are as equipped to handle it as the Patriots.
The Vikings are looking to snap a two-year road losing streak, and at first glance the Patriots wouldn't like the team to get that streak done against. However, after playing three straight road games and forced into a short week coming off Sunday night's game at Oakland, the Patriots are a tired team, beat up and ripe for an upset. Whether or not the Vikings can get that done may be another story, but the chance is there to steal a win and finally put the road losing streak to rest.
Randy Moss vs. Ty Law — Most teams don't have the confidence to play Randy Moss one-on-one. The rationale has been simple — why do it when Moss can change a game with one or two big receptions. The Patriots may be an exception to this rule. They have Pro Bowler Ty Law, who is known as a shutdown corner and is often assigned to neutralize a big receiver for an opponent. But history may dictate this matchup.
The first time Moss and Law hooked up was in the Pro Bowl following the 1998 season. Moss scorched Law at every turn and set a Pro Bowl record for receiving yardage — on his was to a Most Valuable Player award. The second time they met was at New England in 2000, a 21-13 Vikings road win. While Minnesota won the game, it wasn't the result of anything Moss did. He was held to just two receptions for 20 yards. For those of you keeping score at home, the head-to-head series is tied 1-1.
Will Bill Belichick be willing to put Law on an island and go one-on-one with Moss for much of the game? Don't be surprised if he does. Belichick is a gambler on defense, and with the emergence of Michael Bennett he may look to sneak a safety up to stuff the run.
Moss will have his opportunities to make big plays if the offensive line affords Daunte Culpepper the time to find Moss deep. The best part of Law's game is that he has the ability to forget a big play made against him and come right back with the same tactics on the next series. He's fearless and is looking to take the lead in his head-to-head battle with Moss. While it may not turn out to be the marquee matchup by game's end, it is the matchup to watch coming in. VU
Another Chance to End 'The Streak'
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