Perry: The blueprint for Patriots toppling Vikings on Thanksgiving originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
It's a shame this matchup between the Patriots and Vikings comes on a short week because it's a fascinating one to dissect. A few more days of dissection might've been fun.
Even if you were to dig into it ever so briefly, you may find the chances of Bill Belichick's club winning to be more realistic than you anticipated. I did. And, spoiler alert, I'm picking them to do exactly that.
Before we get into the reasons why, let's acknowledge that the Patriots are going to need to eke out a difficult victory at some point just to get to nine wins, which still might not be enough for them to sniff postseason action. This game in Minnesota is... eke-able. More so, at least on paper, than some of the other difficult matchups remaining on their schedule: Buffalo twice, Miami and Cincinnati at home.
Gotta have it, then?
Not exactly. But it can be had. And for that reason, this one might be more meaningful to the Patriots than it is to the Vikings.
Minnesota has the NFC North all but wrapped up. They're in good shape at 8-2. They're a playoff team, even if they were to lose on Thanksgiving. That's almost a foregone conclusion.
Yes, they're coming off an embarrassing loss to the Cowboys. But this is bigger for the Patriots because without it, they face an uphill climb just to make the tournament.
Let's roll through the matchups to see how they can push their winning streak to four...
Matchup that will decide the first half
Bill Belichick vs. Justin Jefferson
Criticize his coaching-staff decisions. Point out that his team may not be what it once was in terms of avoiding self-inflicted errors. But is there a coach in the NFL you'd trust more to wipe out an opposing offense's top weapon when that weapon is by far and away their top weapon?
Belichick's secondary appears well-suited to frustrate Jefferson with double-teams because they have so many interchangeable parts on the back end. Whether Jefferson is aligned wide or in the slot (where he sees about a third of his snaps), expect a variety of defenders to be thrown his way -- particularly in third-down and red-zone situations.
With Kirk Cousins potentially having difficulty buying enough time to find Jefferson (more on that in a minute), the matchup that could end up having a bigger impact on this game is Belichick versus Dalvin Cook. But if the Vikings want to make this a run-heavy game, the Patriots should be prepared.
Though they've been diced by opposing running games from Baltimore and Chicago with dynamic run threats at quarterback, they've allowed just 3.85 yards per carry to all other offenses. Cousins won't be confused for a dynamic running threat any time soon.
Matchup that will surprise you
Patriots offense vs. Vikings defense
At this point, regardless of opponent, a clean and efficient passing performance from the Patriots that yields points may qualify as a surprise for their fans. But that may be just what they're able to cobble together, especially since the Vikings are hurting at corner.
Rookie Andrew Booth -- who's had a rocky season even when healthy -- just went down with a knee injury against the Cowboys and will miss the game. Fellow rookie Akayleb Evans (replacing Cam Dantzler, who's on IR) will miss the game with a concussion. Veteran corner Patrick Peterson has experienced a bit of a career resurgence in Minnesota, but it's looking like a very thin position group for them Thursday.
Meanwhile, even when they have a full complement of defenders, the Vikings and their zone coverages have had a tough time stopping play-action passing attacks. The Patriots have been reluctant to use much play action this season, but they went to it on seven occasions in Week 11, completing six passes for 98 yards.
If they want to keep that going, this would be a good week to try it. The Vikings are allowing the fourth-highest completion percentage in the NFL on play-action attempts. They're also allowing the eighth-highest quarterback rating and the 10th-most yards per attempt on play-action.
That play-action attack for the Patriots may be helped by an ability to run the football in Minnesota. Keep an eye on the availability of stud defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson. He's questionable with a calf issue. Since he initially suffered the injury, he's missed three games, and the Vikings have allowed 4.8 yards per carry in that time.
The Vikings also give up the seventh-most yards after contact to opposing backs this season so this Turkey Day matchup could be an opportunity for Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson to... feast. (I know. Sorry.)
Matchup that will bring you joy
His name is Blake Brandel, but why give him top billing here when odds are you've never even heard of Darrisaw? (If you track the draft, you know Darrisaw was someone who might've been a fit for the Patriots in the early rounds had they had their eyes on a tackle.)
Out with a concussion, Darrisaw's loss is massive. He's the No. 3 tackle in football right now, according to Pro Football Focus' grades. Without him for the majority of last week's game against the Cowboys, Cousins was sacked seven times. Two of those were attributed to Brandel along with two additional quarterback pressures.
Judon is the best pass-rusher the Patriots have, so it'd make sense to try to get him one-on-one chances on Brandel's side. But if Deatrich Wise is coming off the offensive left, he should have all kinds of opportunities to get after Cousins as well.
Matchup that will take years off your life
...That's if Cajuste is healthy enough to play. He popped up on the injury report Wednesday with a calf issue that now has him officially listed as questionable for this game. If he can't go, then it could be Connor McDermott -- recently signed off the Jets practice squad -- who is getting meaningful reps very quickly after returning to the team that drafted him back in 2017.
Not ideal. Not against this contingent of edge rushers.
Za'Darius Smith is one of the most efficient pass-rushers in the game right now, ranked second behind only Judon in PFF's pass-rushing productivity metric (which measures pressures on a per-snap basis with weighting toward sacks). Smith could be Trent Brown's problem, though, since about two-thirds of his pass-rush snaps come off the offensive left side. It's Hunter who may have the benefit of going up against Cajuste or McDermott.
Either way, the Patriots will have to have a plan in place to help out their tackles. Chipping them at the line of scrimmage with a tight end or back... Using play-action... Turning to the screen game... Using move-the-pocket plays like the one last week that got Hunter Henry a 20-yard catch and run against the Jets... Matt Patricia should be willing to do anything and everything he can to slow down the two best pass-rushers on the other side. Especially with the right tackle spot for the Patriots still such a gargantuan question mark.
Matchup that will determine the outcome
Kirk Cousins v. Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick
This is a game that can be won with another dominant defensive performance. So how can the Patriots dominate the man who has become known as Primetime Kirk (10-18 lifetime in primetime games)? Play man coverage. And get after him.
Luckily for the Patriots, that's what they want to do every week. And luckily for the Patriots, they happen to be very good at both.
The Patriots are among the league leaders in man-coverage snap percentage, ranking near the top of the NFL alongside the man-heavy Giants (under former Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale) and Dolphins (under former Patriots corners coach Josh Boyer). When that sound coverage has been combined with the pass-rush they've been getting, they've turned into the No. 1 defense in the league, per Football Outsiders DVOA.
It's a formula that should continue to work on Thanksgiving. Cousins is the 29th-ranked passer in the NFL when it comes to rating against man-to-man coverages, according to Sports Info Solutions. He's 28th in yards per attempt and completion percentage against man-to-man looks, per SIS.
And if the Patriots can pressure Cousins, look out. They should be able to at a relatively high rate since for the season (even with Darrisaw available for 10 games), Cousins is pressured at the eighth-highest rate in the league (37.6 percent) among 39 qualifiers. When under duress, Cousins completes just 42.3 percent of his passes (sixth-worst in football), and his rating drops from 95.9 when kept clean to 64.4, per PFF.
Though it's a short week, the Patriots had oodles of time to prepare for the Vikings, relatively speaking. In Week 11 they had the Jets, who they'd played only a few weeks prior in Week 8, immediately following their bye.
With a significant amount of work on the Jets already in the can, that meant they were able to get to work on Minnesota in earnest during their break. It'd be surprising if they didn't have a plan cooked up for Cousins and the Vikings that keeps this game close -- if it doesn't win it outright.