OK, show of hands;
How many of you saw all the stats about how it’s almost impossible to beat Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots at home in December, but still had this voice inside that kept telling you that the Vikings just might just be the team to show up and signal that it was time for a change?
My hand is up, and I just have one question, “What were we THINKING?!”
In our collective defense, there were signs of hope.
Mike Zimmer’s successful 2nd quarter challenge of a ball spot denied the Patriots a first down, forcing a New England punt. From there, the Vikings offense, which had done nothing in the first half, suddenly came to life, driving 74-yards in 7-plays, taking just a minute and 37-seconds to cut New England’s lead to 10-7 at the half.
Then, in the 3rd quarter (after the usually reliable Stephen Gostkowski showed that other team’s kicker can miss field goals too), Dan Bailey booted a 39-yarder and the game was tied at 10-all.
All we needed was for the Vikings vaunted defense to rise up and show Tom Brady that he was foolish for thinking he could play this young man’s game at the age of 41. It was time for Mike Zimmer to unveil something exotic and take advantage of the Patriots underwhelming offensive line.
Yeah... not so much.
Instead, just when the Vikings seemed to be asserting themselves Tom Brady and the Patriots stood up and reminded us that they are... well,,, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
“We just needed a sense of urgency to take the momentum back”, said Patriots running back James White. “We knew once we got the ball back that we needed to score a touchdown. So, while we had a few big plays, Josh (Gordon) had a few big plays and we got into the end zone and it was exactly what we needed.”
Brady and the Pats offense responded to Bailey's field goal by driving 75-yards in just 4-plays, needing just 1:45 to score the go-ahead touchdown on a catch and run by Gordon. It reminded the Vikings, and people like me why this Brady-Bill Belichick combo is unlike anything else the game has ever seen.
The Patriots spread the ball around on offense, and on a day when Brady steals the headlines by actually running for a 5-yard gain that put him over a thousand rushing yards for his 19-year career, the guy with five rings seemed far more impressed with how many other guys touched the ball on offense.
“That was pretty good”, said Brady. ”Seven guys running the ball, eight guys catching it, that makes it hard for them to defend us so, good to have that and hopefully we can keep it going.”
Of course, Brady and the Pats were far from finished.
Taking full advantage of Vikings replacement corners Holton Hill and Marcus Sherels, Brady’s next possession was something of a marathon. This time the Pats needed a whopping 7-plays to take advantage of a short field, driving 50-yards. Little known fullback James Develin dove in for his second touchdown on the day, and a game that had been tied just 7:26 earlier now saw the Pats holding what you KNEW was an insurmountable 14-point lead.
Other than the Vikings late-first half scoring drive, the Pats put the clamps on Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs while keeping Kirk Cousins and the Vikings offense off-balance. They did it in just the way I was hoping the Vikes would somehow be able to do to Brady.
“I think it was a good scheme,” said Cousins. “You know, they’re not really giving any tells pre-snap and that certainly seemed to be an emphasis for this week that they were going to basically keep you guessing until after the snap and I thought they did a good job with that this week."
While the Pats did surrender a 5-yard touchdown to Thielen late in the first half, the Vikings reception leader was limited to 5 catches for just 28-yards while Diggs also had just 5 catches for an equally paltry 49-yards.
“I’ve gotta do a lot better, personally”, said Thielen. “I didn’t have the plays I need to make to help this football team and that’s on me.”
Thielen’s response was echoed on the defensive side of the ball by safety Harrison Smith, whose message to Viking fans was, while the team was disappointed to let this one get away, there’s nobody in purple ready to press the panic button.
“Playing in games, big games and winning and losing and the difference there, you do learn along the way,” said Smith. “You learn what it takes to overcome these types of things and you stick together. The bad teams start pointing fingers, saying you’ve gotta do this, you’ve gotta do that. There’s accountability absolutely, but we stick together and that’s how we’re gonna move forward.”
For better or worse, the Vikings have almost no time to dwell on this setback. This week brings a trip to the west coast and a game in Seattle, where at 7-5 the Seahawks have a similar record to the Vikings. The teams are, however, going in distinctly different directions with the Seahawks winning three straight, and five of their last seven.
“I feel fine about my team, yeah,” said a subdued Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer. “I think we continue to learn a lot about ourselves. I think we’ve got a good football team, we just have to play better than we did tonight. This one game won’t define us, we have four games left and the season is still in front of us for whatever we want to do.”
OK Coach, for those of us hoping today’s game against New England WOULD define your team, we’ll go with that.
I just hope your team has an easier time swallowing that than I did.