1. Two calls handcuff the $84 million man
Sunday was one of the worst days in the history of the NFC North. All four teams lost. Two lost at home. One fired its coach. The Vikings’ 24-10 loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium was the division’s best effort by default. It also came to an AFC team, which won’t hurt in tiebreakers. The Vikings shouldn’t have a hard time moving on from losing to a team that’s 33-4 at home in December with Tom Brady. But there sure could have been more fight offensively in the fourth quarter. The two play calls on third-and-16 and fourth-and-11 were weak. Down two scores with half a quarter left, Kirk Cousins, the $84 million man, completed two check-down passes that had no shot at a first down. The short throw to Laquon Treadwell for 4 yards on fourth down showed no competitive desire to mount a comeback.
2. Zimmer wins his first challenge of the season
Mike Zimmer picked a real good time to win his first replay challenge in four attempts this season. With just over two minutes left in the first half, the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski was credited with a 5-yard gain on second-and-5 from the New England 22. Zimmer fired his red flag. Upon further review, Gronk was given a 4½-yard gain because safety Anthony Harris somehow got the giant tight end down. On third-and-1, the Patriots ran a direct snap to James White, who was stopped for no gain by Danielle Hunter. Zimmer’s challenge could very well have caused a 14-point swing. Instead of the Patriots having the chance to take a 17-0 lead and getting the ball to start the second half, the Vikings used the final two minutes to score a touchdown and close the gap to 10-7.
3. Holding penalty kills momentum
The Vikings were playing some impressive complementary football midway through the second quarter when the first of their five penalties — holding on left guard Tom Compton — ruined things. Anthony Harris broke up a pass on third-and-goal from the 1. That led to the Patriots settling for a field goal and a 10-0 lead. Ameer Abdullah returned the ensuing kickoff to the Vikings 34. An 18-yard run by Dalvin Cook opened the drive. Two plays later, Cook ran 5 yards to the Patriots 40-yard line. But what should have been third-and-2 became second-and-17 because of Compton’s hold. Cousins and Stefon Diggs were so wildly out of sync on the next play that referee Craig Wrolstad had to announce that there was no intentional grounding because Cousins wasn’t under duress. The Vikings punted two snaps later.
4. Belichick loses both of his challenges
While Zimmer won his replay challenge, Bill Belichick lost both of his, dropping the Vikings’ opposing coaches to 0-for-4 this season. With 3:51 left in the third quarter, Belichick challenged Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph’s 5-yard catch on third-and-5. Replays clearly showed Rudolph caught the ball and got two feet down in bounds before the ball was knocked from his grasp. That was a big play because it was one of only three third downs the Vikings converted in 12 attempts. The only other third downs converted came on a 5-yard pass to Cook on third-and-1 and a 4-yard pass to Aldrick Robinson on third-and-2. Early in the fourth quarter, Belichick challenged Latavius Murray’s 1-yard run on fourth-and-1. The replays showed Murray being stopped short, but Belichick lost the challenge anyway. The Vikings lost the ball on downs seven plays later.
5. Patriots showcase ‘best’ play-action early
Zimmer called the Patriots the best play-action team in the league. And his Vikings got a good taste of it on New England’s opening drive after the Vikings began the game with a three-and-out. The Patriots started the series with a false start and an incomplete pass. Then they had consecutive plays of 13, 18, 24, 15 and 15 yards en route to a 7-0 lead. Brady completed four of five passes to four different wide-open receivers for 70 yards. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels stretched the Vikings horizontally with two short throws left, one short right, one short middle and a jet sweep left to the 1. The longest play was a 24-yard pass to former Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. Brady ran play-action right, turned and connected with Patterson near the left sideline with nary a Viking within 5 yards of him.