The Vikings entered Sunday’s game knowing that the Patriots would attempt to take away their top weapons, and they succeeded.
New England, for the most part, shut down Vikings wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, forcing Minnesota to look elsewhere offensively.
Diggs was targeted on the third play of the game and gained six yards on third-and-8. He didn’t make another catch until late in the second quarter, however, when he picked up 24 yards to kick off the Vikings sole touchdown drive.
The big play was followed by a 23-yard catch by Kyle Rudolph, who put the Vikings at the Patriots 27-yard line. Diggs made another 10-yard catch four plays later to set up first-and-goal on the New England 5, and quarterback Kirk Cousins found Thielen in the right corner of the end zone.
The score marked Thielen’s first grab of the afternoon.
Thielen was double-teamed by Patriots defensive backs – and twin brothers – Jason and Devin McCourty on the touchdown play but still managed to create separation and make the catch. The attention to Thielen by the secondary was a theme of the day, and Diggs was covered closely, as well.
In the second half, Diggs had two more catches and finished with 49 yards. Thielen had another four catches in the fourth quarter for 23 yards, bringing his total for the day to 28.
“We had a feeling they were going to be able to do that, or try to do that, and they did for the most part,” Cousins said postgame.
Cousins pointed out a third-and-5 situation in the third-quarter, when he went deep for Thielen and nearly connected on what would have been a highlight-reel catch, but Thielen wasn’t quite able to bring it in.
“The ball was just a foot too far on the third down, and we almost came down with it, but it was an incompletion,” Cousins said. “And that was a situation where they were trying to double him, and he’s still able to have the chance for an explosive play there.
“We felt that going into the game, as much as they may try to take them away, that there would still be opportunities there, as well as opportunities to [Rudolph] and our backs and Aldrick [Robinson] and Laquon [Treadwell], and there certainly were at times,” Cousins continued. “But other times we just didn’t, as an offense, find a way to get it done.”
With the two receivers kept largely out of commission, the Vikings were forced to settle for the intermediate passes and involved Dalvin Cook through the air.
Cook led the Vikings in catches with eight but totaled just 22 yards. Fellow backs Latavius Murray and C.J. Ham each made a pair of catches, combining for 14 receiving yards.
Cousins targeted the Vikings other receivers, as well.
At one point in the third quarter, Robinson made three consecutive grabs for gains of 8, 8 and 4, the last one converting a third-and-2 to keep Minnesota’s drive alive. From inside the Patriots 25, Cousins took two shots at the end zone for Robinson and Thielen. Both incompletions involved contact from the defender but did not draw a pass interference call from officials, and the Vikings were forced to settle for a 39-yard field goal by Dan Bailey.
“It all happened so fast that it’s hard to know what’s interference or not in the moment,” Cousins said. “I went over to the ref and just asked him, ‘Why wasn’t there a pass interference? Can you help me understand what took place? It would seem that they were unable to get to the football.’ But he explained what he thought happened and why it wasn’t [a penalty], and I said, ‘OK,’ and we moved on. But certainly, those were plays that, when they fall incomplete, it’s tough to have to settle for three.”
The game seemed manageable despite Minnesota’s main weapons being taken away, but after the field goal, New England blew the contest wide open.
The Patriots answered with a four-play, 75-yard drive that ended in a quick touchdown by Josh Gordon; the Vikings ensuing drive was an incompletion, a 5-yard pass to Murray, a sack of Cousins for a 10-yard loss and a punt.
New England scored another touchdown to go up 24-10, and the Vikings then tried to play catch-up.
Thielen had three catches on the next drive, but all were for short gains. A holding penalty on Vikings left tackle Riley Reiff put the Vikings at second-and-20, and Thielen caught back-to-back balls for four and five yards, respectively. Having no choice but to go for it on fourth-and-11 with the clock winding down, Cousins connected with Treadwell for just four yards.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer explained that the Patriots defense clamped down all day and didn’t allow Minnesota many options to go downfield.
“Well, they were using a lot of double coverage on guys, and they had some looks where they were showing a lot of [Cover 0s] and backing guys out,” Zimmer said. “Once in a while they’d come on, you know, on the fourth down they made us throw the ball to Treadwell because we didn’t have enough guys to block it.”
Thielen said that New England did a “great job” of executing its game plan to make the Vikings play without their top targets. But in consistency with his character, the receiver took the onus largely on himself.
“They didn’t let me get going. Obviously, they’ve got some really great players, they’ve got great coaches, and we knew that coming into the game,” Thielen said. “We have to get better; I have to get a lot better, personally. I didn’t make the plays that I needed to make to help this football team, and that’s on me.
“They do a great job of keeping you off-balance, and they’re not going to do what they did last week; they’re not going to do what they did two weeks ago. They’re going to have a new game plan for you, and we knew that coming in. We knew that we had to prepare for everything,” Thielen later added. “They gave us some looks blitz-wise, and that really kept us off-balance. When teams do that, you have to make plays when you get opportunities, and obviously we didn’t do that.”