One of the defining characteristics of the New England Patriots’ success since 2001 has been their ability to win in different ways.
Does Tom Brady have to pass 50 times? No problem. Do they need a game-changing play from special teams? Coming right up. What about a goal-line stand or turnover that denies the opponent a sure score? Consider it done.
In last week’s 27-13 win over the New York Jets in the Meadowlands, New England unleashed its latest weapon — rookie running back Sony Michel. He became the first Patriot since Jonas Gray delivered a stunning 201-yard performance four years ago to run for more than 100 yards in a game, piling up 133 and a touchdown on 21 carries.
With rain a 50-50 possibility for Sunday’s late-afternoon visit from the Minnesota Vikings, Michel could be a prominent part of the New England offense again.
“It always opens up everything else,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the running game. “It keeps you out of those long-yardage situations, which we have been in the last couple of weeks.”
What’s more, New England (8-3) will also get versatile Rex Burkhead back off injured reserve for this Week 13 matchup. Burkhead has missed the last eight games with a neck injury suffered in a Week 3 loss at Detroit. His ability to catch passes out of the backfield gives Brady one more option in the passing game.
While the Patriots are again cruising to the AFC East title, Minnesota (6-4-1) can’t afford many more slipups if it wants to qualify for the NFC playoffs. A 24-17 win over Green Bay last Sunday night aided its chances, but with Seattle and NFC Central leader Chicago still on the December dance card, the Vikings might not want to take their chances with a 9-6-1 mark.
If Kirk Cousins can play in December like he did last week, Minnesota’s chances are aided immensely. He strafed the Packers’ pass defense for 342 yards on 29-of-38 accuracy, connecting for three touchdowns and quieting his critics for at least a week.
“It shows his character and what kind of player he is to just not really care what people talk about him, and not care what happened last week, and to go out there and play some really good football, “ wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “The throws he was making ... his full game was really impressive.”
Thielen (calf) was removed the injury report after a full practice Friday, while wideout Stefon Diggs (knee) and cornerback Xavier Rhodes (hamstring) are expected to play through a questionable tag after practicing on a limited basis Friday.
Brady (knee) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (ankle/back) were removed from the injury report on Friday after being limited in practice earlier in the week.