FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The month of December has been a special time for the New England Patriots during the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady era.
Since the pair arrived in 2000, the Patriots are 64-13 during the final month of the regular season. Brady has been the starter for all but six of those victories — four during his rookie season in 2000 and two in 2008 when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener.
Still, the 41-year-old quarterback’s 58 December wins are the most in NFL history. His .843 winning percentage is second-best among quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era. Roger Staubach (17-3, .850) is first.
Patriots special teams captain Matt Slater is one of the few players left on New England’s roster with enough tenure to appreciate that run and the emphasis Belichick puts on this portion of the season.
“As coach says, ‘Football season starts after Thanksgiving,’” Slater said.
Just for good measure, Brady is 75-18 in regular-season games played on or after Thanksgiving.
Three of their final five games are at home, beginning with Sunday’s matchup with Minnesota.
But even after the Patriots (8-3) earned their latest post-Turkey Day win last week over the Jets, Slater said the message coming from Belichick and Brady is far from a state of being content.
“I don’t think we’ve played our best football yet,” Slater said. “I think it was a step in the right direction.”
That’s not good news for a Vikings team that is in position to make the playoffs, but is also a few losses away from peering in from the outside.
Minnesota (6-4-1) has lost four straight regular-season meetings with New England, though the teams haven’t met since 2014. The Vikings have won twice at New England, but their last victory was in 2000 in Belichick’s first year.
Running back Dalvin Cook said the Vikings are trying to concentrate on themselves and not the Patriots’ mystique.
“We’re going to get caught up in us playing good football, and that’s what we’ve got to focus on,” he said. “Everybody can go into the whole thing of ‘New England this.’ We respect Tom, we respect the Patriots, we respect everything they’ve got going. But it’s more about us at this point, about how we’re playing football and about just the little things we’re doing. We’ve got to go in and focus on those.”
Here are some things to watch for in Sunday’s game:
Tough on Tom
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer’s defenses have had some success in minimizing Brady’s impact in some matchups against the five-time Super Bowl champion. Though Zimmer’s teams have lost three of four games against the Patriots, with the Vikings in 2014, as the defensive coordinator for Cincinnati in 2010 and as the defensive coordinator for Dallas in 2003, the Bengals beat New England 13-6 in 2013 with Zimmer in charge of the defense.
Over those four games, Brady has been intercepted only once, but his average against Zimmer’s defenses is only 204 passing yards and one touchdown with a 56.3 percent completion rate.
The game at New England for the Vikings is sandwiched between matchups with Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Seattle’s Russell Wilson, so Zimmer, his staff and his players have had their hands full lately and will continue to into the next month.
“Like Belichick said about Rodgers,” Zimmer said of Brady, “I’m glad he’s not in our division.”
Getting the ground game going
The Vikings have the third-fewest rushing yards in the league this year, after finishing seventh last season. Though the success of their passing game and particular game situations have factored into them falling to 28th in the NFL in attempts after totaling the second-most rushes last year, they’ll need an uptick down the stretch and in the playoffs, if they make it, to keep winning.
Attacking the perimeter last week against the Packers was productive, with Cook and Stefon Diggs each taking jet sweep plays for 9 and 12 yards, respectively. There’s another untapped source of rushing yardage that lies with quarterback Kirk Cousins, too.
Though Cousins had just 17 yards on six attempts and has never rushed for more than 38 yards in an NFL game, he’s had plenty of opportunities to bolt for a first down this year that he’s passed up in favor of a throw after the pocket has collapsed.
“I can’t miss those opportunities when they’re there, and you also can’t go looking for them when they’re not there,” Cousins said. “You just have to play and react instinctively, and when they present themselves be ready to attack.”
Sunday will be a reunion of sorts for Patriots receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who spent the first four years of his career in Minnesota (2013-16) before being signed by the Raiders the following year.
Patterson had a career-high four touchdown catches and was utilized out of the backfield as a rookie in 2013. But he developed a reputation as bad route-runner and barely got any time at receiver in his second and third seasons in Minnesota.
He bounced back and had a career-best 52 catches during his final season in 2016.
“They’re using him way better than we did,” said Zimmer, who coached Patterson for three seasons beginning in 2014. “I think they use him in a number of different ways. I mean, it’s good to see for him. I wish we would have used him a little bit better.”