Patriots' formations allow Brady to pick apart Vikings

MINNEAPOLIS -- Among the spectators in the Metrodome press box, and one of the few in attendance who actually maintained more than cursory interest even in the late stages of a lopsided "Monday Night Football" game basically decided by halftime, was Colts advance scout Clyde Powers.

Truth be told, in terms of compiling a detailed dossier on the Patriots, ever-diligent Powers, who spent the game whispering his observations into a tape recorder and scribbling reams of esoteric notes, probably could have saved the airfare and lodging charges.

Because if the undefeated Colts want an idea of what they'll face Sunday night when they travel to Foxborough, all they had to do was turn on a video of themselves.

"Yeah, with what we did [offensively] tonight," wide receiver Doug Gabriel said after the Patriots' 31-7 waxing of the Minnesota Vikings, "I guess we probably did resemble the Colts a little bit."

A little bit? Watching New England's offense as it had its way with a Vikings defense that was much improved from a year ago entering the game was like watching a Colts clone -- spread formations on almost every play, lots of shotgun snaps, wide receivers making big plays and gaining yardage after the catch on most of the intermediate balls, and clever use of the tight end.

And, oh yes, a quarterback with uncanny accuracy, great instincts and the ability to carve up a secondary with surgical precision.

Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who is always seeking new ways to improve the fan experience, might consider replacing the scoreboard at Gillette Stadium with one of those telethon-style tote boards for Sunday's prime-time affair against Indy. Yeah, there could be a lot of points scored.

Certainly the Patriots (6-1) warmed up for the visit from the 7-0 Colts by putting on a Peyton Manning-like performance in ringing up 430 yards and 25 first downs against a Minnesota defense that never divined an antidote for the various spread formations New England deployed so liberally.

"We just thought that, because of the way they play, spreading the field was the best way to play them," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Pass protection against those guys is a challenge, but I thought our line did a nice job. And Tom [Brady], well, his favorite receiver is the guy who's open."

Brady had a lot of favorites Monday night, completing passes to 10 receivers, finishing the evening 29-of-43 for 372 yards, with four touchdown passes, one interception and an efficiency rating of 115.6. Three players -- Gabriel (five catches for 83 yards), fellow wide receiver Reche Caldwell (seven for 84 yards and one touchdown), and tight end Benjamin Watson (seven for 95 yards and one score) -- had five or more receptions. Brady completed 13 passes of 10 yards or more, six of 20-plus yards, four for 30-plus, and three of 40 yards or more.

"It was frighteningly simple," Vikings free safety Darren Sharper said. "They spread us out all over the place, and [Brady] picked us apart. And they did it all night long."

By spreading their offense, the Patriots forced Minnesota linebackers like E.J. Henderson and Napoleon Harris into difficult coverage matchups, and they couldn't run with New England's receivers. They also exposed the Vikings' nickel and dime defenders. And Minnesota probably didn't help its cause much by not blitzing until the second half, which it entered trailing 17-0.

Said cornerback Antoine Winfield: "I thought when they were up 20 points or whatever, they would run the ball. But Brady kept finding open receivers and he made plays. I mean, I thought we were prepared, but they came out in that spread and they dinked and dunked us."

Before red-hot Brady mercifully departed the game with 4:27 remaining, the Patriots clicked off 58 offensive snaps. The unofficial distribution on how much they spread the field: New England ran 26 snaps with three wide receivers, eight plays with four wideouts and 17 from an empty set (five receivers and no running backs). That means only seven plays from a traditional two-back, two-wide receiver set.

Against a Vikings defense that ranked first in the NFL against the run and that features a pair of ponderous, run-stuffing tackles in Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, the strategy by the Patriots coaching staff was to come out throwing. And throwing, and throwing, and throwing.

On the opening possession, Brady completed all six of his passes for 94 yards, including a long, 45-yard crossing pattern to Gabriel on third-and-10 from his own 14-yard line. He finished off the drive with a 6-yard scoring hookup to Caldwell. The drive set the tone for the evening, not just from a performance standpoint but also in terms of schematics.

The Patriots operated out of the empty formation on four of their seven plays in the opening series, and Brady completed all four passes out of the set for 43 yards. Of their first dozen snaps in the game, the Pats used the empty formation seven times. For the night, Brady was 13-of-16 for 120 yards and two scores out of the empty formation, and he was sacked one time for a loss of 2 yards from that particular set.

For the evening, Brady was sacked three times, but the Patriots' offensive line mostly held up well. New England started a rookie at right tackle, a right guard who only came off the practice squad two weeks ago and a second-year left guard. There might be no one in the NFL who does a better job of pulling together an offensive line unit, and who gets less publicity, than longtime Patriots assistant Dante Scarnecchia. Using so many formations with three or more wide receivers places a lot of pressure on the team's pass protection scheme, but the unit typically acquits itself well.

"When you let Tom stand back there like that and get a good look at everything, this is what he's going to do to you," Watson said. "He can just carve you up. He played big, didn't he?"

Watson is becoming an increasingly big part of New England's offense and, just as the Colts do with tight end Dallas Clark, the Pats use their third-year veteran in just about everything but a traditional manner. Watson rarely was in a three-point stance Monday night, instead playing most of the game standing up or flexed slightly off the line. He doesn't move out into the slot as much as Clark does for the Colts, but the athleticism and upfield skills of the two provide their respective offenses great flexibility and diversity.

The emergence of Watson and the development of the Pats' young wide receiver corps clearly were on display at the Metrodome as the coaches installed their most ambitious passing game plan of the season. This is a wide receiver group that has only one player, venerable Troy Brown, returning from last year. Of the top four players at the position, Caldwell was signed as an unrestricted free agent from San Diego, Gabriel was acquired from Oakland in a trade, and Chad Jackson -- who scored on an all-effort 10-yard catch late in the third quarter -- was a second-round draft pick.

"I think we're all starting to hit our stride now," Caldwell said. "We've all kind of grown into the offense together, you know? You could feel it starting to come together in practice the last few weeks and, clearly, the coaches have more faith in us now. You can feel the momentum growing."

And you can feel the Pats, who are 6-1 without much fanfare, perhaps emerging again as a viable Super Bowl contender. To this point, New England has been pretty much a blip on the radar screen, lost amid all the attention being paid to teams such as Indianapolis and Chicago.

"The way they played tonight, though, I think they sent a message," the Vikings' Winfield said. "That blip just got a whole lot bigger."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.