Popular preseason Super Bowl picks meet for early December reality check
Last season, the Minnesota Vikings were one game away from playing the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Heading into the 2018 season, both Minnesota and New England were popular picks to make deep playoff runs once again. Sunday’s showdown at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough will be a reality check for both teams.
The Vikings have a 6-4-1 record and trail the Chicago Bears (8-3) in the NFC North. Minnesota currently sits atop the NFC Wild Card standings. The Patriots have an 8-3 record and are first in the AFC East. New England is No. 2 in the AFC standings — trailing only the Kansas City Chiefs (9-2), with whom the Pats own a head-to-head tiebreaker following a thrilling 43-40 win in Week 6.
New England has an 8-4 all-time lead in a rarely played series that dates back to 1970. The last time these two teams met, the Patriots won 30-7 in Week 2 of 2014. The last time the Vikings won at New England was a 21-13 victory on Sept. 17, 2000.
FOX’s top crew of Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and Erin Andrews will call “America’s Game of the Week,” a mid-afternoon kickoff that will be televised nationwide — with the exception of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest (49ers at Seahawks), and Metro Nashville (local blackout). Vikings-Patriots is a matchup worthy of the primetime spotlight and should receive a coast-to-coast audience that reflects that level of respect.
Minnesota at New England
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 2, at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -5
Three Things to Watch
1. Tom Brady
Brady carries a 32-4 career record at home in the month of December. This season, New England is 5-0 at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots’ three losses have come on the road — at Jacksonville (31-20) in Week 2, at Detroit (26-10) in Week 3 and at Tennessee (34-10) in Week 10. Brady hasn’t lost a home game in December since a 35-28 defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 13 of 2015.
While just about any historical split stat favors Brady, the 41-year-old has shown signs of slowing down. Brady has thrown just three TDs over his last four games and only seven over the last six games. If he wants to cash in on his $5 million worth of 2018 contract incentives — $1 million each for a top-five finish in passer rating, completion percentage, yards per attempt, TD passes or passing yards — Brady needs to pick up the pace. (He also has a $2 million Super Bowl-winning bonus this season. TBD.)
2. Vikings' pass defense
Minnesota’s defense will be chasing Brady much faster than Father Time has been able to in recent years. The Vikings have 36 sacks, tied for the NFL’s third-best mark. Defensive end Danielle Hunter has posted 11.5 sacks, tied for second in the league. The heat Minnesota brings off the edge and up the gut in the pass rush also opens up opportunities for dynamic safety Harrison Smith, a player Patriots coach Bill Belichick compared favorably to future Hall of Famers Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu.
The Vikings are on a four-game streak of holding high-profile passers to fewer than 200 passing yards. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (198 yards, TD), Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky (165 yards, TD, two INTs), Detroit’s Matthew Stafford (199 yards, fumble lost) and New Orleans’ Drew Brees (120 yards, TD, INT) have all struggled to move the ball through the air against a Minnesota defense that thrives on getting off the field — holding opposing offenses to an NFL-best 27.6 percent conversion rate on third downs this season.
3. Adam Thielen & Stefon Diggs
The Vikings’ receiving duo of Thielen and Diggs are banged up. Diggs missed practice time with a knee injury, while Thielen was limited due to a calf ailment. When healthy, Thielen and Diggs have been Minnesota’s best pair of pass catchers since Randy Moss and Cris Carter. In fact, Thielen (93 catches, 1,138 yards, 8 TDs) and Diggs (79, 790, 6) are attempting to become Minnesota’s first pair of 1,000-yard receivers since Moss and Carter in 2000.
New England lockdown corner Stephon Gilmore will most likely be tasked with shadowing Thielen. Although Gilmore had an INT against the Jets last week, he struggled against the last “No. 1” receiver he faced off against. Tennessee’s Corey Davis (No. 5 overall pick in 2017) caught six of eight targets for 98 yards and a TD with Gilmore covering him in a 34-10 Patriots loss in Week 10. Prior to that, however, Gilmore had only allowed 20 catches for 223 yards through nine games.
As good as Thielen and Diggs have been, Minnesota has its best results with a balanced attack. The Vikings are 5-0 when quarterback Kirk Cousins attempts fewer than 40 passes and just 1-4-1 when he has 40-plus attempts. For what it’s worth, Cousins is one 300-yard game away from tying the team record of six in a single season — a mark shared by Brett Favre (2009) and Daunte Culpepper (2004).
Smart money is on the Vikings to keep it close and cover. But the historical success of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady at home is hard to bet against straight up. The Patriots have been more vulnerable this season. But with the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski and emergence of rookie runner Sony Michel, New England should be able to score just enough to pull out another December win at Gillette Stadium.
Prediction: Patriots 33, Vikings 30