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4 Vikings-Patriots Storylines: O'Connell & Belichick Reunion; Facing Sacks Leader Judon

EAGAN, Minn. — Quickly back in action and back in the spotlight — this time with a #PrimetimePurple glow — for the third week in a row, the Vikings (8-2) will host the Patriots (6-4) at 7:20 p.m. Thursday in the first Thanksgiving game ever hosted by Minnesota.

The franchise will appear on the national holiday for the ninth time overall, 11 days after an upset road win at Buffalo that boosted believers and just four removed from a home loss to Dallas that created doubts.

The Vikings loss ended a seven-game win streak.

After opening 1-3, the Patriots have gone 5-1 since Week 5, allowing just 11.8 points per game.

Here is a predicted key matchup, along with five storylines for this week.

Matchup to watch: Vikings offensive line vs. Patriots pass rush

As the Vikings try to bounce back, they'll need to improve their efforts against another stalwart pass rush.

The Cowboys recorded seven sacks of Kirk Cousins, a career high suffered by the QB, on Sunday to push their season total to an NFL-best 42.

Look back on images from past games between the Vikings and the Patriots.

The Patriots rank second with 36 and will be interested in boosting that total.

Matthew Judon leads the NFL with 13 sacks on the season with three more than Dallas linebacker Micah Parsons, who forced a fumble on the third play of Sunday's game for his first sack and added another against the Vikings. Parsons enters Week 12 with 10 sacks. Judon is on pace for 22 sacks, and he could become the first Patriots player to ever lead the league in sacks for a full season.

Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell complimented Judon as "having one of the best defensive seasons going right now in our league."

"When you turn on the tape, it's easy to see why — incredibly talented, strong and can win in so many different ways, and then how dialed in the rest of that group is," O'Connell said. "Their operation is very clean. The personnel groupings they use provide a lot of stress, obviously, for your players. You're trying to quiet their mind, and I feel like we've got a good plan. Players are digesting it as we go, but make no mistake about it, it's going to be a heck of a challenge again for our guys up front and really all 11 in the run and pass game."

The Vikings will be without left tackle Christian Darrisaw, who suffered his second concussion in as many weeks.

1. O'Connell and Bill Belichick reunion

The Patriots drafted O'Connell in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft. The backup to Tom Brady and Matt Cassel soaked up everything he could from New England Head Coach Bill Belichick, who is in his 23rd season with the Patriots, is a six-time Super Bowl Champ and three-time Coach of the Year winner from The Associated Press.

"He is one of my coaching influences. … Those characteristics, those foundational things you learn there even in the short time that I was there, have stuck with me," O'Connell said. "I still have old notebooks with team meeting notes and things like that that are always great to go back and look through throughout that season, throughout the offseason, training camp. So as I've said many times, it's been a huge part of my football journey to be able to experience being there for that period of time and helped me grow tremendously.

"But as far as coaching against him and his team this week and his coaching staff, you just know what the challenge is going to be," O'Connell added. "They're going to play good football, they've got really good players and schemes that challenge you in every way, shape or form to try to coach your team up to try to meet that and give them the chance to play a competitive game and get back on track to where we think we are as a football team, even coming off of a performance like that the other day."

2. Stingy Patriots, especially through the air

The Patriots have allowed six points this November. Part of the stinginess includes having a Week 10 bye, but New England stymied Indianapolis 26-3 in Week 9 and returned to action Sunday by grounding the Jets in a 10-3 victory claimed on an 84-yard punt return with five seconds remaining.

Belichick and his defense rank second in points allowed per game (16.9) and opponent passer rating (74.0).

The Patriots have not allowed a receiver to record 70 or more receiving yards and a touchdown in a game this season and have only allowed two 100-yard games by foes (Allen Lazard had 116 in Week 4, and Garrett Wilson totaled 115 in Week 8).

The Patriots are tied for the second-fewest receptions by receivers per game (10) and tied for the fewest receiving touchdowns by WRs (four).

According to NFL Media Research, New England has played man coverage on 52.5 percent of opponents' dropbacks this season (third-most in the NFL); Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson leads the NFL with 428 receiving yards against man coverage, according to Next Gen Stats.

Jefferson (4,109) enters Thursday needing 55 yards to break the record for the most in a player's first three seasons.

3. A Cousins bounce back?

I pointed out in this week's Mailbag that Sunday's loss to Dallas reminded me a bit of some past Sunday-before-Thursday games in which the Vikings have struggled.

2015: Lost 38-7 at home to Seattle before losing 23-20 at Arizona

2018: Lost 27-6 at home to Buffalo before losing 38-31 to the Rams in Los Angeles

2021: Lost 29-27 at Detroit before defeating Pittsburgh 36-28

NFL Media Research noted that, prior to the 40-3 loss to Dallas, the 2018 Week 3 loss to Buffalo is the only other time the Vikings have lost by more than 20 points in a game started by Cousins. It also was one of two times when Minnesota had only mustered six points in a Cousins start, along with a 16-6 defeat by Chicago in 2018.

He emerged from each of those games by throwing for more than 300 yards and two or more touchdowns in games that followed (a 38-31 loss to the Rams in Los Angeles in 2018 and a 28-10 win over the Giants in New York in 2019).

While New England has been so stingy against the pass, Cousins is actually 8-4 and has a passer rating of 111.8 against top five pass defenses in Week 5 or later since 2018. He's completed 69.3 percent of his passes for 244.3 yards per game with 24 touchdowns against three interceptions.

4. Primed in time?

The Vikings have tried to be forward-thinking at every step of the way in managing workloads for players. Once Sunday's outcome was determined, Minnesota ushered in waves of subs wherever possible to get ready for the short turnaround.

Minnesota has not participated in practices this week, instead opting for walk-through sessions.

Cornerback Andrew Booth, Jr., was listed as not practicing (an approximation because of the walk-through status) on Monday or Tuesday. Cornerback Akayleb Evans (concussion) was limited. If neither can go, the Vikings will probably turn to Duke Shelley.

"Akayleb is still in the [concussion] protocol. He was able to participate in a limited fashion yesterday," O'Connell said Tuesday. "You guys know that protocol is very standard, and it's very important that we follow it absolutely by the doctors, by the independent folks and by our folks in house here just to make sure health and safety is the number one priority. As those guys, both he and C.D. (Christian Darrisaw), we'll stay true to that, with that being the utmost important thing.

"With Booth, he just had some soreness in that knee pop up postgame. That can happen from time to time," O'Connell added. "With it being a short week, we'll see where he's at and if he's able to get any kind of work in today or tomorrow and determine his status for the game."

O'Connell said defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson "continues to progress pretty rapidly" from a Week 8 calf injury "and is in a really good spot."

"With it being a short week, again, we'll be smart with him. Not at all in a place yet to rule him out or determine if he's going to play or not," O'Connell said. "That's one of those things, with this short week, I'm just gonna have to update you as we go."