Not surprisingly, the New England Patriots are winning again and they’re beginning to show more faith in their receivers. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings’ unexpected emergence is due partly to a ground game they can finally trust.
New England (5-1) has won three straight since a 17-7 loss to Denver on Sept. 24, opening up a 1 1/2 -game lead over the New York Jets in the AFC East.
After missing the playoffs last season and bringing in a new coaching staff, Minnesota (4-2) has been a surprise contender in the NFC. The Vikings are coming off a 31-13 win at Seattle that ended the defending NFC champion Seahawks’ 12-game home win streak, including playoffs.
Monday’s contest features two strong defenses, New England’s resurgent passing offense and the NFL’s second-leading rusher in Minnesota’s Taylor.
“I think we’ve improved in the passing game over the last several weeks,” New England coach Bill Belichick said. “I hope we have with all the meetings and practices and walkthroughs that we’ve had. I think we’re executing some things better in the passing game better than we were two weeks ago, three weeks ago.
“That being said, I still think there’s a lot of room for growth. There are a lot of things to work on. But I think we’re headed in the right direction. We’ve made progress.”
The Patriots have been searching all season for reliable targets to replace Deion Branch, who was traded to Seattle after a contract dispute, and David Givens, who signed with Tennessee as a free agent.
Brady’s numbers have suffered because of the changeover. The two-time Super Bowl MVP entered last week’s game as the league’s 16th-rated quarterback, but he completed 18 of 27 passes for 195 yards for his highest passer rating of the season (112.4).
A strong passing game to complement a defense allowing just 13.3 points a contest can only help the Patriots continue their run on the road. Their last loss away from home was on Nov. 27, when they were defeated 26-16 by Kansas City.
Taylor raced for a career-high 169 yards, including a franchise-record 95-yard touchdown run, on 26 carries to lead the Vikings last Sunday. He has 590 yards rushing through six games—493 of those in Minnesota’s four wins.
Taylor, signed as a free agent from Baltimore in the offseason, has brought stability to a running game that has ranked no better than 18th the past two seasons.
The Vikings have been relying on Taylor, an efficient passing game and a defense that is allowing 15.8 points per game in their first season under coach Brad Childress.
“The way our defense is playing,” Minnesota receiver Travis Taylor said, “we’re almost unstoppable. If we continue doing what we’re doing on offense … we’re going to be a hard-to-beat team.”
Most of quarterback Brad Johnson’s throws have been to Chester Taylor out of the backfield. He leads the team with 21 receptions, which isn’t even in the top 50 in the league.
“You’ve just got to try to do what you can to win,” Travis Taylor said. “We’ve played against some good teams, good defenses, so you’ve got to take advantage of their weaknesses.”
Scoring near the goal line has been the Vikings’ biggest offensive issue. Minnesota is tied for 30th in the league with a red-zone touchdown conversion rate of only 28.6 percent, scoring four times in 14 possessions. The good news is the other 10 all went for field goals.
Minnesota has some health problems at receiver, though Childress indicated Monday that Marcus Robinson (bruised lower back), Travis Taylor (concussion) and Troy Williamson (concussion) could all be ready to play Monday.
“I’m not going to count any of them out. Let’s put it that way,” Childress said.
These teams haven’t met since Brady threw three touchdown passes to lead the Patriots to a 24-17 win at home on Nov. 24, 2002. This is the first matchup in Minnesota since a 23-18 Vikings’ victory on Nov. 2, 1997.
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