FOXBOROUGH – This stretch isn’t going to get easier for the Patriots. That’s why this Thanksgiving matchup with the Minnesota Vikings is a big one.
At 8-2, the Vikings have been one of the biggest surprises in the NFL. They currently have a commanding lead in the NFC North (Detroit is second with a 4-6 record) and it feels like a certainty this team will be in the playoffs.
For the Patriots, it’s the opposite. At 6-4, they currently the AFC’s No. 6 seed and in the toughest division in football. The Patriots will likely need to win at least 10 games to secure a wild card spot. That means they need to win four of their final seven games. The only teams on their remaining schedule with losing records are the Arizona Cardinals and Las Vegas Raiders – and both matchups are on the road.
If the Patriots are going to make the playoffs, they’ll need to beat several playoff contenders. That starts with the Vikings.
Here are three keys to a Patriots victory:
Limit turnovers, score in the red zone
It goes without saying that the Patriots need to limit turnovers. By now, that’s obvious. But even when the Patriots are playing clean (like Mac Jones has down in the past two games), the team still isn’t scoring enough points.
The biggest key for this game is for the Patriots to score in the red zone. That means they need to limit penalties and negative plays when they set their sights on the end zone. This season, the Patriots are scoring touchdowns on just 42.86% of their red zone trips. That’s the second lowest mark in the NFL. They’re ranked 31st and only ahead of the Denver Broncos.
The Vikings come in this game with a great record, but it’s also noteworthy they have one of the worst passing defenses in the NFL. Minnesota is allowing 267.3 passing yards per game. That’s the second worst mark in the league.
The Vikings, however, are turning the ball over. Minnesota has a +7 turnover differential this season. That ties them for the third best in the NFL. So, if Jones is going to be successful on Thanksgiving, he needs to play clean and the offense needs to be more efficient near the end zone.
Double Justin Jefferson, make Kirk Cousins beat you
Kirk Cousins isn’t a great quarterback, but he’s working with some elite weapons. If you want to slow down this Vikings offense, it doesn’t start with the quarterback. It starts with receiver Justin Jefferson.
Jefferson is fourth in the NFL in receptions (72). Second in receiving yards (1,093) and is one of the most dominant players in the NFL. If the Patriots can limit Jefferson to under 50 yards, it would go a long way. Last week, the receiver finished with 33 receiving yards and the Vikings scored only three points. Their other loss of the season came in Week 2 when Jefferson finished with six catches for 48 yards.
The key for the Patriots will be to double Jefferson every time he runs a route. They could do that with Jonathan Jones or Jalen Mills at cornerback with Devin McCourty over the top. That would mean they single cover Adam Thielen with either cornerback and assign safety Kyle Dugger to lock down tight end T.J. Hockenson.
If the Patriots secondary can win like this, it would put a lot of pressure on Cousins. This season, Cousins is tied for fourth in interceptions and ranks eighth in sacks taken (27). This could be another game where the Patriots defense dominates another quarterback.
Feed Rhamondre Stevenson
The Vikings’ run defense hasn’t been great the past three weeks. In their 40-3 loss to Dallas, they allowed 151 rushing yards. The week before, the unit gave up 175 total rushing yards. In Week 9, Washington ran for 137 rushing yards.
On top of that, Minnesota has struggled against pass-catching running backs. This season, the Vikings have allowed 443 receiving yards to opposing running backs. That’s 27th in the NFL.
A key for the Patriots on Thursday is to feed Rhamondre Stevenson and get their run game going. The offense plays at its best when they’re running the ball efficiently. This season, Stevenson has been the team’s best offensive weapons. He has 927 yards from scrimmage. That leads the Patriots with Jakobi Meyers’ 518 yards second.
This season, the Patriots are 4-2 when Stevenson runs for 60 or more yards. The Patriots are also 2-1 when Damien Harris runs for 60 or more yards. If the Patriots can run the ball and control the clock, it would go a long way to getting an upset win.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Vikings 20