FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – For the better part of three quarters, the New England Patriots used a methodical and almost boring approach to attack the visiting Minnesota Vikings.
Boring by today’s NFL standards, anyway. There was no high-flying aerial display, no blistering pace, not even an abundance of the signature connections between Tom Brady and favorite targets Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski.
Instead, the Patriots went smashmouth. Again and again they ran the football. They pounded, slashed and scrambled, then pounded some more.
Then, without warning, Brady took to the air, directing a four-play, quick-strike drive that culminated with a touchdown pass to wide receiver Josh Gordon, who until the final two minutes of the third quarter had only one target.
New England followed with a pass-heavy possession, but this time capped by a 2-yard fullback dive into the end zone – James Develin’s second of the day – for the deciding 24-10 win.
It almost seemed as if the Patriots were determined to grind the Vikings into submission, got bored with that approach and then shifted into overdrive to ensure the outcome wasn’t close.
Until that late-third-quarter scoring drive, the Patriots nursed a 10-7 lead, but the game didn’t feel that close at all. The rushing attack gained yards in chunks, and Brady – content to dump the ball off to underneath receivers – had only one downfield pass attempt (a 29-yard completion to Cordarrelle Patterson).
But then, after a Minnesota field goal tied the score at 10-10 with 2:20 left in the third, it was as if Brady and play-caller Josh McDaniels decided to stop playing with their food and to polish the Vikings off with a more aggressive passing attack. They did so with apparent ease.
“I’m not sure,” Brady said after the game when asked about the run-heavy approach, which was complemented by seven completions to running back James White and a smattering of short tosses to seven other targets.
Determined not to share any insight on the strategy, he continued, “But we’ve got to take advantage of all parts of the field. I think that’s going to be the key for us.”
The real answer should have been, “because we can.”
Now fully stocked with multiple running back options, as well as multiple accomplished pass-catchers of varying skill sets, the Patriots’ offense is as dangerous and versatile as it’s been at any point this season. New England has the capability to win gritty, and it has the ability to win pretty.
“It really is just finding a way to win,” said Develin, who entered the game with one carry for a 1-yard touchdown and emerged with two carries for 3 yards and two more touchdowns. “In this league, you can’t be one-dimensional. You have to find what works on every given down, every given game, and it’s a testament to our coaches and the position they put us in.”
Couple the well-rounded offense with a defense that on Sunday held the Vikings’ Pro Bowl wide receiver tandem of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen to a combined 74 yards while limiting Minnesota to just 95 rushing yards and intercepting Kirk Cousins twice, and the Patriots now have that look. It’s the mark of a squad that’s battle-tested, well-equipped and primed for the most challenging time of year.
That’s right: It’s December, and that’s typically when Bill Belichick’s teams play at their best. This is when Brady truly finds his groove (he’s now 59-11 in the month of December – a league record for wins by a quarterback). This is when the Patriots round into playoff mode.
“After Thanksgiving, we always say,” safety Duron Harmon explained, “that’s when the real football starts.”
As defensive lineman Trey Flowers put it, “When we get to December, it’s just a sense of urgency as far as understanding we have to be on our ‘A’ game. The schedule’s not getting easier. You’re dealing with a lot of weather, dealing with a lot of things that are a factor in the game.
"Some teams fall off, some get tired, but we just elevate. It’s the mindset of the whole organization and understanding that late in the season is when you want to be able to get better late in the season. It’s when you want to be at your peak.”
At this point in the year, it’s all mental, Patriots players say. They’ve been grinding all season long, but their coaches start preaching the importance of focusing even more intensely on details, drilling and studying with a greater sense of urgency and executing with the greatest precision.
At 9-3, the Patriots are virtual locks to win their division for a record 10th consecutive year and reach the playoffs. However, amid a push to prepare for the postseason and the goal of securing home-field advantage, the urgency remains.
As things currently stand, the 10-2 Chiefs own the top seed in the AFC. But the Patriots prefer the road to the Super Bowl run through Foxborough, just as it has for five of their previous seven Super Bowl trips.
“We know how important it is to play well this time of year,” Harmon said.
They know important it is to take care of December.
Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
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