Standing at his locker on Wednesday, Dalvin Cook dutifully parried the idea that the Vikings, heading into Gillette Stadium on Sunday, have any reason to be in awe of the Patriots.
“We’re not going to get caught up in the Patriots mystique,” Cook said. “We’re going to get caught up in us playing good football, and that’s what we’ve got to focus on. Everybody can go into the whole thing of ‘New England this.’ We respect Tom [Brady], we respect the Patriots, we respect everything they’ve got going. It’s more about us at this point, about how we’re playing football and just the little things we’re doing. We’ve got to go in and focus on those.”
The sentiment reflected the Vikings’ focus at the beginning of a week when they’ll try to become the first visiting team to win in New England since the Panthers won 33-30 in Week 4 last season. On Oct. 1, 2017 — the same day Cook tore his ACL against the Lions — Carolina posted 444 yards of total offense, withstanding a 14-point fourth-quarter comeback from the Patriots and winning on Graham Gano’s 48-yard field goal as time expired.
Since then, the Patriots have won 12 in a row at home, including two playoff games last season. In his career, Brady is 124-20 at Gillette Stadium. He is 32-4 at home in December, dating to his first year as a starter when the Patriots were still playing at Foxboro Stadium. His .889 winning percentage at home in the regular season’s final month is the fourth best in NFL history among quarterbacks, behind only Aaron Rodgers, Trent Green and Daryle Lamonica.
In other words, the mystique is there for good reason.
“I don’t even know where to begin with what you can learn from him,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “He won his first Super Bowl when I was in seventh grade. This game matters to him so much, and you see it in the way he conducts his business. [He’s] very comfortable in the pocket; he does a great job of feeling the rush, and not seeing the rush. In that way, he’s very mobile. He’s always been great in crunch time, and he’s a winner. I think he’s really set the bar for all of us who came after him, and really, everybody who came before him as well.”
If the 41-year-old Brady has shown one weakness this season, it’s been throwing interceptions more frequently (on 1.7 percent of his passes) than he has since 2013. He’s got only a 77.1 passer rating when he’s under pressure, and teams haven’t necessarily had to blitz Brady to affect him; they’ve only sent extra pressure after him on 64 of his 422 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday his staff often looks to the Vikings defense as a source of ideas, and the Vikings have augmented their pressure package with some new looks this season, including overload blitzes and the approach they showed Rodgers on Sunday night, when safety Harrison Smith lined up between linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr in a triple-A gap blitz look.
The Vikings, though, typically don’t throw a heavy volume of blitzes at quarterbacks of Brady’s pedigree; they blitzed Rodgers and Drew Brees only three times each in their games against both quarterbacks at U.S. Bank Stadium, and blitzed Brees on only 22 of 80 dropbacks in two games against him last year.
If they’re able to find as much success pressuring Brady with a standard rush as they had against Rodgers and the Lions’ Matthew Stafford in recent games, they could help themselves in a hostile environment on Sunday.
“I hope it helps. They do a good job of getting in no-backs [formations] and spreading the ball around, getting the ball out quick,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “Protection-wise they change up on you quite a bit so they can get extra hands on your pass rushers. The play action, quite honestly, helps them quite a bit because they sell the run so well with it. If it was just a straight passing game every snap, I think we’d have a good opportunity.”
As efficient as the Patriots are, and as much success as they’ve had at home, the Vikings know they likely won’t be able to head into Foxborough expecting many handouts from the two-time defending AFC champions. Such a formidable challenge, though, also presents them with a unique opportunity.
“It’s going to be fun playing there again,” said defensive end Everson Griffen, the only Viking on the current roster who was on the gameday roster for Minnesota’s last trip there in 2010.
“I haven’t played there in eight years, and it’s going to be an exciting time to play there again.”