Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday's game against the Vikings at Gillette Stadium (4:15 p.m.).
Mike: There are a lot of places we can start this week, Tedy. Tom Brady's excitement is one thing that stood out to me. He was talking about this game and how it is going to be played on Halloween, a late-afternoon start, with the team wearing red throwback uniforms and Randy Moss coming back to town. He said this should be a fun environment. He also said that while he hopes Moss is happy in Minnesota, nothing would make him happier than beating him on Sunday. That competitiveness really shines through.
Tedy: This is one of those games that you circle when you see it for a few reasons, starting with Randy Moss coming back to town. Also, it was a highlight for me during the year when you found out you were wearing throwback uniforms. I considered myself old-school, and you'd see the highlights of players such as Andre Tippett, Steve Nelson and Gino Cappelletti, so when you put on "Pat Patriot" it was a feeling of tradition, vintage, that old logo. It was always popular in the locker room.
Mike: When you look at the matchup, this is one of those "pick your storyline" games. Randy Moss. Brett Favre. Tom Brady's streak of 23 consecutive regular-season home wins. The improving Patriots. The underachieving Vikings. And then you can throw in some comments from Vikings coach Brad Childress in which he stokes the fire of Bill Belichick by reflecting on a 31-7 loss to New England in 2006 and calling the Patriots the greatest signal stealers of all time. While Childress later said he had no knowledge of any illegal signal-stealing, I can't imagine Belichick was too pleased with that.
Tedy: I think Brad Childress should keep his focus on his own team. He has plenty to worry about this week. Brett Favre once again is taking all of the attention away from a pivotal game. Childress' credibility has been in question ever since he left practice last year to go pick up Favre from the airport. Lately, he has also criticized officials and been publicly critical of his starting quarterback. As a player, I always felt the best way for a head coach to get his message across was through the team meetings. Calling out a player in front of his peers is the most powerful way a coach can get his point across. The more I study this team, the more I feel it is Favre who is calling the shots. I think there is a simple way that Childress can regain control of this struggling team. Bench Brett Favre. He's not playing very well and he's hurting. Do what's best for your team and end this nonsense. Start Tarvaris Jackson and let the old man get some rest.
Mike: That would be a powerful statement, Tedy. We'll answer one fan question this week at the end of the breakdown, but also taking a suggestion from a reader, this is a chance to break down one technical aspect of the game. I think a good one this week is two-gapping on defense because the run defense figures to be key and that is how the Patriots regularly play on the line of scrimmage. How would you explain what it means to two-gap and why is Vince Wilfork so good at it?
Tedy: Two-gapping is a very difficult technique to master. You aren't trying to penetrate a gap on a down-to-down basis. You have to stand your man up, use his body to fill the gap and be able to shed the blocker and make the tackle. One key to recognize is the numbers on the back of a player's jersey. After the ball is snapped and the blockers have been engaged, can you read the entire number on the jersey? Of course this view can be seen only from the rear of the defensive formation. If you see only one of the numbers of the defender or none at all it means the offensive blocker is winning and has been able to turn the defender to one side. If this happens, then there is usually a hole in the defense. When executed properly, the front seven will build a wall that runners can't get through. What you need is players who have the ability to strike the blocker down the middle and maintain leverage to be able to lock out and shed. Vince Wilfork is so good at this because of his great balance and strength. He may have the strongest hands in the league. He is also able to decipher blocking combinations in a split second.
Patriots defense vs. Vikings offense
Mike: In three games with the Vikings, Randy Moss has 12 catches for 166 yards and two touchdowns. Does this look like a player who is slowing down to you?
Tedy: I don't think it's a case of him slowing down as much as him trying to figure things out. Now, with three weeks under his belt, he's more acclimated with the offense and I think we'll see him featured a bit. He's already affected defenses, with coverage rolled toward Randy, and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and receiver Percy Harvin being open more. Harvin has really benefited from Moss because he is back in his natural position in the slot -- he's a Welker-esque type of guy. So you have Randy on one side, Bernard Berrian on the other, Harvin in the slot, then Shiancoe in the middle, and it's a group that presents a lot of problems for a defense. Randy is affecting coverage and opening things up for those guys.
Tedy: I think what you're looking for is physical play at the line of scrimmage. I think you want to jam him at the line of scrimmage and get him as discouraged as possible. I like McCourty in that matchup. He's more of a physical corner, and he's also very quick. He isn't afraid to mix it up.
Mike: Here in New England, Moss is obviously a huge story, but nationally, Brett Favre is even bigger. The question, of course, is will he play? His streak of 291 consecutive regular-season starts is on the line.
Tedy: He'll be there. That's how Bill Belichick would always approach it with us with any player whose availability might have been in question. So you get your mindset focused to the point that you're convinced he will be there. And then, if he's not there, you deal with it and adjust. This is what Favre has done his entire career. You can say what you want to say about Favre and the NFL's ongoing investigation and how he loves the media, but he's tough. He goes out there and plays in pain. He's always there for his team. Good or bad.
Mike: How about his production this year? He's thrown 10 interceptions against seven touchdowns.
Tedy: I see him being who he is -- sometimes he plays great, sometimes he plays awful. I think it always hurts when you miss training camp and come in and think you are going to be the guy you were last year. It just doesn't happen because football is a game in which you need practice. We thought he was washed up when he was with the Jets for that one year, but I think he had his best game of the year when he played us.
Mike: With most other teams in the NFL, we would have never made it to this point without analyzing the impact of a star running back. But I know you feel Adrian Peterson is the most important player for the Patriots to stop.
Tedy: I think he's the best running back in the NFL. He's matured, he's taking care of the ball better, he runs hard, he's just flat-out exciting to watch. He's coming off a game in which he had success against Green Bay, with 131 yards, and it looks like the Vikings are making a more conscious effort to run the ball, especially with Favre's injury. The Patriots have to show they can stop the run with the front seven so the safeties can stay back and help on Moss. That's the key to this game.
Mike: One thing that was easily picked up on in the Patriots' locker room this week was how players were quick to point out all the weapons on the Vikings, not just Moss. With that in mind, receiver Percy Harvin is yet another one.
Tedy: When you have a guy like Harvin, he's going to be everywhere -- in the slot, in motion, in the backfield, out wide in an empty set. With players like that, Bill would always say "Find him!" The first thing you do when the formation breaks is find Harvin and consider how he will be a threat from that position. He had 41 rushing yards last week and a rushing touchdown -- they give it to him out of the backfield, they give it to him on reverses and little screens, option routes in the middle. He's everywhere.
Mike: The Vikings' offensive line looks like a strong run-blocking group but one that might struggle at times in pass protection. Then you have the tight end in Shiancoe.
Tedy: They almost ran for 200 yards last week. This is a big line. They will come in and it won't be hard to find them. The Patriots, along the defensive front, have a big challenge ahead of them. Shiancoe is one of those tight ends who, when you get him in the red area, he's a threat. He's just another weapon.
Patriots offense vs. Vikings defense
Mike: Talking with Patriots offensive players this week, their feeling is that the front seven is what defines the Vikings' defense. They are tough to run against, and while the sack numbers aren't necessarily there, you still have to respect the edge rushers in the passing game, as well as the interior pressure. They haven't been a blitz-heavy team to this point.
Tedy: The interior of the Vikings' line is where I'd start, with Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. It's tough to run inside on them. In that 2006 game between the Patriots and Vikings, that's why the Patriots decided to spread it out and just throw the ball. They didn't want to bang their head against the wall trying to run it. That was a situation where you felt you weren't going to have success, so you attack another area. This is a strong run defense, but I don't think it's the best in the league. I think you can still have some success against it, but with the Patriots not having depth at running back and the power running game to attack on a consistent basis, I think it will be enough to discourage a consistent running attack.
Mike: The better matchup for the Patriots does look to be in the passing game, with a big "if" attached to it -- if they can protect. Left tackle Matt Light struggled against the Chargers.
Tedy: Going back to last year, Jared Allen had a monster year for the Vikings. He's been quieter this year. Ray Edwards, on the other end, is also a threat. I see Edwards eventually passing Allen as that bigger threat coming off the edge. For the Patriots, I see Light bouncing back. It's easy to forget that the most athletic person on the field is often that edge rusher. It is a tough matchup, and the only time you notice is when he gets beat. Light has been a consistent performer for this team for a long time. He's in his 10th year, but I still see him getting the job done. More than that, I'd be more concerned this week with pressure coming up the middle. That's what bothers Tom Brady the most, when you are coming up in his face. Center Dan Koppen has had some struggles in that area and that will be something to watch against Pat Williams and Kevin Williams.
Mike: You are also a fan of Vikings middle linebacker E.J. Henderson as the "quarterback" of that 4-3 defense.
Tedy: He is a great comeback story after breaking his leg last year. When you saw it happen, it was gruesome. No one thought he would come back to play again, but not only has he come back, he was ready since day one. He has performed well, making big plays in the running game and passing game. He's smart, he's savvy and he has heart, which is what you want at that position.
Mike: So what are the Patriots looking at in the secondary?
Tedy: You have some question marks. The Vikings had a rookie, Chris Cook, and he was playing in nickel situations and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers picked on him. He went out and then they brought in Frank Walker. This is the question mark of this defense and that's why you might see the Patriots spread it out. It's time for them to get things going, as the past two weeks they've struggled offensively a little bit. Especially last week. They got away with one a little bit in San Diego.
Mike: Quarterback Tom Brady has looked off at times in the past two games. While giving credit to two good defenses, any reason for concern there from your view?
Tedy: I think you have to acknowledge there is a little bit of a transition taking place without Randy Moss. I think it's obvious how defenses played him. You put him on the Minnesota Vikings and immediately you notice teams paying so much attention to him coming off the line of scrimmage. They are buying themselves some time while still winning games.
Mike: Before getting to our predictions, let's answer one fan question. Tedy, this came into the mailbag on ESPNBoston.com from reader "Ben from New York," who asks "What do you see from Kyle Arrington? He has had a good run of success since being activated."
Tedy: You are right, Ben. He has performed well enough to keep Darius Butler on the bench. I didn't like some of the things I saw in the Baltimore game. He had some technical flaws on Boldin's touchdown. I didn't like the way he anticipated a throw when there was no pump fake from Flacco and Boldin was in full stride. Having said that, he appears to be getting more and more comfortable in his role and he may be the one who draws some of the heavy lifting when it comes to Moss this week.
Mike: As for predictions, I like the Patriots in this game because I think they will be able to throw the ball. Defensively, it all comes down to quarterback play for the Vikings and I think the Patriots will see if Brett Favre, assuming he plays, can beat them. I have my doubts he will be able to do it. If the Patriots are up late and have the ball, I wouldn't be surprised if they go for an extra touchdown instead of sitting on the ball, as a Bill Belichick-type of message to Brad Childress. Patriots 33, Vikings 17.
Tedy: As much as I feel like the Patriots want to blow this team out, I think it's going to be close. The Vikings will come out pumping Adrian Peterson and that run game, eating up the clock and keeping Tom Brady and the offense off the field. The Patriots win, but it will be low-scoring and physical. Pats 21, Vikings 17.