FOXBOROUGH, Massachusetts — The greatness of quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots has been an on-and-off thing this season. Some cracks have been evident in the dynasty, although not enough to bring it all tumbling down just yet. Brady, at age 41, has been good but not the MVP-caliber player he was last season at 40.
But now it’s December. Winning time is at hand. Emotions are running high, as Sunday’s on-field verbal confrontation between Patriots Coach Bill Belichick and Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen underscored. And as Belichick yelled at Thielen, the Patriots reinforced the notion that they are the team to beat in the AFC yet again by pulling away late to defeat the Vikings, 24-10, at Gillette Stadium.
“That’s a good win against a good football team,” Belichick said in his typically dour manner at his postgame news conference.
He had quite a bit more to say to Thielen, the Vikings’ standout wide receiver, during the game. Following a fourth-quarter play on which the Vikings were awarded a first down on a controversial spot, Patriots safety Patrick Chung remained down on the field with an injury. Thielen became upset, believing the Patriots were stalling to give Belichick time to decide whether to challenge the spot, and he screamed at officials near the Patriots’ sideline.
Social-media lip readers watching on TV surmised that Thielen had yelled, “That’s bulls—!” They contended that Belichick told Thielen to “shut the f— up.” Belichick did challenge the play, but the spot was not overturned by the replay review.
Thielen said in the Vikings’ postgame locker room that he thought the Patriots’ stalling tactics were “cheap” and “interesting timing” but not, he conceded, illegal. He said he was not offended by his exchange with Belichick, but the two did not speak to one another after the game, he said.
“No offense taken,” Thielen said. “It’s football. There’s emotions. He can think what he wants to think about me, and it doesn’t really change how I’m going to go play the game. He can hate me all he wants, and I’m going to still be the same person I am.”
Belichick said little about the episode. Asked during his news conference whether it had been an exchange between two competitive people, he said, “Yeah, pretty much.”
Patriots safety Devin McCourty said, “I love when we get engaged like this. … Bill’s fiery. We see it every day.”
The Patriots otherwise let their play do the talking as they upped their record to 9-3. That keeps them on the heels of the Kansas City Chiefs, who are 10-2 after winning Sunday at Oakland in their first game since releasing running back Kareem Hunt, for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
The Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers remain in that race as well. But they aren’t the Patriots. And they don’t have Brady.
It has been, so far, a season of stops and starts for the Patriots. A 1-2 start gave way to a six-game winning streak that included a triumph in Foxborough over the Chiefs. The winning streak ended with a lopsided loss at Tennessee, and the Patriots got back into the win column with an uneven performance in a road victory over the New York Jets. This was a better showing against a team, in the Vikings, with postseason aspirations of its own.
Brady threw for 311 yards and a touchdown in a 24-for-32 passing performance. He tied Peyton Manning for the most career touchdown passes in NFL history including postseason games, with 579. He tied Brett Favre for third all-time with his 508th regular season touchdown pass. Brady also reached 1,000 career rushing yards, one of his rare achievements in which he does not qualify for all-time greatness.
“Hopefully I don’t go backwards next week,” Brady said.
The Patriots’ offense had success early in the game, with a first-quarter touchdown run by fullback James Develin. A second-quarter field goal by kicker Stephen Gostkowski increased the lead to 10-0. But the Patriots struggled a bit from there, and the Vikings got even on a touchdown pass by quarterback Kirk Cousins to Thielen just before halftime and a third-quarter field goal by kicker Dan Bailey.
No matter. The Patriots responded quickly after that Minnesota field goal with a touchdown drive that included two Brady completions to wide receiver Josh Gordon and another to tight end Rob Gronkowski. The second Brady-to-Gordon connection resulted in a 24-yard touchdown. Develin added his second touchdown of the day on a two-yard run in the fourth quarter as the Patriots used a spread-the-wealth approach on offense.
“That makes it hard for them to defend us,” Brady said. “So [it was] good to have that happen, and hopefully we can keep it going.”
It was a frustrating day for the Vikings, whose record dropped to 6-5-1. Cousins threw for a modest 201 yards on 32-for-44 passing. After Brady threw a fourth-quarter interception, Cousins followed by throwing one of his own. Cousins threw a second interception in the game’s final minute.