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What To Watch For When Vikings Visit Patriots

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- You know, it's awfully difficult to assess the Minnesota Vikings based on their record.

They're 6-4-1. Three of those four losses have come in games where there's simply no shame in losing -- at the Rams, home against the Saints, and at the Bears. The other loss was to the Bills. We'll chalk that one up as a one-day goof. Yet even with the Bills included, the four losses have come to teams with a combined 32-12 record, or .727 winning percentage.

On the flip side, the six wins came against the 49ers, Eagles, Cardinals, Jets, Lions and Packers. Those six teams have a combined record of 20-45-1, or a combined winning percentage of .303. (They've also tied the 4-6-1- Packers.)

Looking at those performances, it might be fair to conclude that the Vikings are perfectly mediocre. They're capable of beating bad teams, and they have zero wins against teams currently in the playoff picture. That's been good enough for the Vikings to find themselves in the playoff picture, currently as a wild card.

But the task will be tall this Sunday when the Vikings visit Foxboro, where the 8-3 Patriots are 5-0 in their own building. Here's where you can keep an eye once this one begins late Sunday afternoon.

Making The Throws ...

Kirk Cousins
Kirk Cousins (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

What's separated the Patriot's good defensive days from their bad days has in many instances simply come down to the quarterback making or not making his throws. Even in some of the Patriots' better defensive showings, they did open some narrow windows to opposing QBs. Where Matthew Stafford was able to complete 15-yard outs in front of decent coverage, the likes of Ryan Tannehill and Josh McCown proved unable to do the same.

Kirk Cousins, he of the $84 million contract, ought to be able to make the throws to take advantage of whatever it is the Patriots' defense is giving him. Though Cousins doesn't rank among the league's best this season, he is in the midst of what will likely go down as the best season of his career. He's completing 71.1 percent of his passes, and he's on pace to throw for about 4,800 yards and 32 touchdowns.

Albeit in losing efforts, quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck were able to move the ball, sustain drives, and put points on the board at Gillette Stadium. The challenge now presents itself to Cousins to do the same.

... And Making The Catches

Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs
Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Of course, a quarterback is only as good as his receivers. And Kirk Cousins has himself a pretty darned good receiver. Two, in fact.

The duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs is rightfully getting positive pub as the best current receiving tandem in the NFL. It'd be hard to argue against that.

Thielen leads the entire NFL with 93 receptions, and he ranks second with 1,138 receiving yards. His eight touchdowns have him tied for fifth.

Diggs has been slightly less prolific but still massively productive. He ranks fifth in the NFL with 79 receptions and he's tied for 13th with six touchdowns and tied for 20th with 790 receiving yards. Considering he missed a game due to injury, it's impressive.

Thielen's had exactly one quiet game this season (22 yards vs. Detroit, though he did still manage to find the end zone), and Diggs has been silenced three times (17 yards vs. Buffalo, 33 yards apiece vs. Arizona and the Jets). Clearly, even holding these guys remotely in check has proven to be a tall task for just about every team, so the Patriots are going to need more than just one Stephon Gilmore to try to limit the damage.

Diggs has been limited this week with a knee injury, so that may help slightly even the playing fields. But facing the NFL's eighth-worst pass defense, this duo figures to have a prime opportunity to have a monster day.

Can The Patriots Run The Football?

David Johnson
David Johnson is tackled by Anthony Barr and Trae Waynes. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

This will be a most interesting challenge facing the New England offense. Coming off their best team rushing performance since The Jonas Gray Game in 2014, do the Patriots try to parlay that into a two-week stretch, or do they recognize that it's unwise to stubbornly insist upon attacking the opponent's biggest strength?

Most likely, the Patriots will shy away from a run-heavy approach. The Vikings rank fifth in the NFL in total rushing yards allowed and third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per attempt. The longest run they've allowed all year has been 21 yards. Opponents have rushed for a touchdown just six times against Minnesota, tied for fourth-fewest in the league. (The Patriots are tied for second in that category, having allowed five rushing TDs.)

Of course, things haven't been much better for opposing offenses when it comes to the passing game. Minnesota ranks fifth in the NFL with 211 passing yards allowed per game, and eighth in the league with an opponents' passer rating of 88.1. They've allowed just 14 passing touchdowns -- fewest in the NFL.

Clearly, regardless of the Patriots' preferred mode of attack, there won't be much room for error.

The return of Rex Burkhead does figure to give the Patriots some options in terms of sending two running backs (Burkhead, along with James White, of course) out of the backfield. Such sets proved effective last year with White and Dion Lewis, and Burkhead's pass catching ability should add a useful element to this year's team. It might not be the worst time to start throwing a few passes Sony Michel's way, if only to maintain some sense of unpredictability. He did catch two passes last week against the Jets, marking the first time he was targeted more than once since Week 2.

So, the running backs are likely to have ample opportunity to do damage against the Minnesota defense. They're just going to have to catch the ball first.

Heavyweight Matchup

Harrison Smith, Rob Gronkowski
Harrison Smith, Rob Gronkowski (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Last week was certainly The Return Of Gronk. He caught a 34-yard touchdown and impacted the game in a notable way. But, he was also largely kept in check by safety Jamal Adams. (Adams wasn't in coverage on the touchdown.)

We've seen some excellent safeties keep Gronkowski quiet before, most notably Eric Berry for the Chiefs in Week 1 of 2017. Now, Minnesota's Harrison Smith would like to become the next.

The 6-foot-2, 214-pound safety has the size to match up decently with the 6-foot-6, 268-pound tight end. And with the way Gronkowski and Bill Belichick have talked about him this week, there should be no doubt that they are wary of the safety heading into Sunday.

"He's one of the best -- you know, Smith, Ed Reed, [Troy] Polamalu. Those guys are, I'd say, among the best," Belichick said. "He's certainly right there."

"He's a big guy and he's physical and he's tough. He's going to be bringing it. He's just got all-around game and the size that he has too definitely stands out," Gronkowski said. "Smith is all over the field. He's blitzing, he's covering, he's down a lot in the run game. ... We played him before and he always stands out."

We obviously don't know if Smith will draw Gronkowski duty. But seeing two heavyweights go to battle for three hours would make for some compelling action come Sunday afternoon.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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