Can Kirk Cousins outduel Tom Brady? How will Bill Belichick defend Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen? Can the Vikings defense matchup with Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon and Rob Gronkowski? So many intriguing storylines and so many key questions underscore this weekend's Vikings-Patriots battle at Gillette Stadium.
In true NFL fashion, though, don't be surprised if another storyline entirely is the one that emerges to define this contest. Here's one to consider: Whichever team is able to generate production from their running backs will win this game.
Yes, the NFL is a passing league. Yes, all eyes will be on Brady and Cousins. And yes this game features dynamite pass-catching weapons on both sides. But this game is being played outside. In December. And in the elements. This game will have a playoff feel to it. This game very well could be one of those "run the ball and play defense" kind of games.
In that event, both teams will feel well equipped to win that kind of physical, postseason-type of game. The Patriots boast sensational rookie Sony Michele and the versatile and clutch James White in their backfield. The Vikings can rely on the steady hand of Latavius Murray and also turn to the suddenly heating up Dalvin Cook. With their stable of running backs, both the Vikings and Patriots have dynamic one-two punches featuring versatile players who can block, catch and run.
Ultimately, this game may require outstanding play and production from the running back position. Both teams have the personnel to pull off this task.
Bet you haven't heard this about Tom Brady
If you watch and listen to press conferences and interviews enough, you start to hear a lot of the same language and answers from coaches each week. But this week, Vikings Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo offered something fresh about Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. DeFilippo, said Brady is "probably the best who've ever played" and that praise is credible given DeFilippo's extensive background coaching quarterbacks at the NFL level. In his praise of Brady this week, DeFilippo got in the weeds about with quarterback mechanics.
"Depending on who the quarterback is," DeFilippo explained, "if you're a wide base, short strike guy, that's what you want to watch – you want to watch Tom Brady because he's so good at it. Just staying back in the pocket, moving his feet, keeping a wide base, great upper body torque when he throws the football; he's so fundamentally sound it's really a thing of beauty to watch."
Matchup of the Game: Harrison Smith vs. Tom Brady (pre-snap)
It's hard to slow down Brady and the Patriots offense. If a team is going to have any chance of doing so, the ability to disguise intentions and the discipline to vary tactics is crucial. While linebacker Anthony Barr is the one who wears the green dot and relays the plays on the Vikings defense, it may be Harrison Smith who bears as much, if not more, of the responsibility for disguise. Smith will be a pre-snap key for Brady as the Patriots offense attempts to diagnose the coverage the Vikings are using each play. While all eyes will be on what happens after the snap, it's the chess game before the snap between Smith and Brady that sets the table for everything else.
How do you think Zim will scheme to limit Gronk?
-- Jeff Kilty
I don't know the Xs and Os answer nor would it be wise to disclose it in this space even if I did. But my guess is physicality and leverage are two important factors. It would make sense for any rushing defender – a lineman or linebacker – to give Gronkowski a nudge on their way past him to disrupt his release and timing from the line of scrimmage. Also, it's important to play with the right leverage (shading to the inside or outside in coverage based on where the help is) because Brady will take advantage of a defender in an instant if he's playing with the wrong leverage.
If there is a silver lining to the Vikings tough schedule, don't you agree it is getting us ready for the playoffs? We already had a taste of the Saints, Rams and Bears in the NFC (with Seattle around the corner). And now the Patriots?
Yes, a 1st-place schedule will do that to a team. I agree the silver lining in a tough schedule is it helps the team become battle tested, which is beneficial in the playoffs. If you make the playoffs. So first things first…the Vikings have to qualify for the playoffs or that whole battle tested theory goes out the window.
"They're doing really good with him. Everybody knew Cordarrelle was an outstanding athlete, strong runner, great when he had the ball in his hands. We probably could have done a better job when we had him, after watching them." – Head Coach Mike Zimmer on the Patriots usage of Cordarrelle Patterson
The good news here is the understanding Zimmer has of how effective Patterson has been for the Patriots and the fact that Zimmer is willing to acknowledge it to himself and publicly. This is good news because it shows that, in the future, Zimmer will make sure his coaches consider as many options as possible when it comes to finding ways to utilize talented players.
Stat of the Week
Adam Thielen needs seven receptions to reach 100 for the season and become the first Viking since Randy Moss in 2003 to reach that threshold
First of all – bravo to Thielen for approaching and, presumably, reaching this milestone. But that's not the notable part of Stat of the Week. The notable part of Stat of the Week is that it's been 14 seasons since the Vikings have had a receiver with 100 receptions. Hard to believe it's been that long, but it's also hard to believe such a streak will start again with Kirk Cousins, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen wearing purple.
National TV: FOX
Play-by-Play: Joe Buck
Analyst: Troy Aikman
Sideline: Erin Andrews
Local Radio: KFAN-FM 100.3/KTLK-AM 1130
Play-by-Play: Paul Allen
Analyst: Pete Bercich
Sideline: Greg Coleman, Ben Leber