NFL Preview - New England (0-1) at Minnesota (1-0)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Mike Zimmer passed his first test as an NFL coach with flying colors but that was like a freshman algebra exam against a Sam Bradford-less St. Louis Rams team.
This week, Zimmer needs to ace his doctorate thesis against perhaps the best coach/quarterback combination in NFL history, New England's Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
To make matters even tougher, the Patriots will arrive in Minneapolis angry after suffering an embarrassing 33-20 setback to AFC East rival Miami in South Florida during Week 1.
While the Miami offense played well last Sunday and overcame turnovers on three straight possessions in the first half, it was a stout defensive effort from the Dolphins in the second half that proved to be the difference.
The Fish held Brady and Co. to a pair of first downs through most of the second half, while Miami scored 23 unanswered points to storm back from a 20-10 halftime deficit.
Brady finished 29-of-56 for 249 yards with a touchdown to Rob Gronkowski for the Pats, who lost a season-opener for the first time since a 31-0 setback at Buffalo to start the 2003 campaign.
Against a fierce pass rush the Patriots managed just 67 yards of total offense in the second half, most on a final drive when the Dolphins eased up and went to a soft cushion with a 10-point advantage.
The Vikings, on the other hand, rode a much-improved defense and the talents of second-year star Cordarrelle Patterson to rout the Rams 34-6.
Patterson, a wide receiver by trade, had more rushing yards than Adrian Peterson in the win, carrying the ball three times for 102 yards, including a 67-yard touchdown. The University of Tennessee product also caught three passes for 26 yards for the Vikings.
Peterson rushed for 75 yards of his own on 21 carries for Minnesota, which looks primed for a bounce back season after finishing 5-10-1 under Leslie Frazier in 2013.
Veteran quarterback Matt Cassel, who began his NFL career in New England, was a steady 17-of-25 for 170 yards with two touchdowns. His top target was Greg Jennings, who hauled in six passes for 58 yards and a score.
"I like how this team works, I've said it numerous, numerous times," Zimmer said.
This contest marks the first regular-season game of the Vikings' two-year stay on the campus of the University of Minnesota. The Vikings will play the 2014 and 2015 seasons at TCF Bank Stadium while the team's new stadium is being built downtown at the same site as its previous home, Mall of America Field.
The Pats lead their all-time series with Minnesota 7-4, a product of winning three straight in the rivalry.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Cassel was a seventh-round pick of the Patriots back in 2005, and burst onto the NFL scene when he won 10 games as an injury replacement for Brady in 2008.
"I think I constantly refer back to some of the things that I learned in New England and throughout my career," Cassel said. "It was a great stepping stone, and it also gave me time to mature as a player and as a quarterback. I got to learn from one of the best to ever play the game in Tom, and he was such a great mentor to me."
Cassel has plenty of talent around him in Minnesota at the skill positions. Peterson remains the game's best pure runner out of the backfield while Patterson is one of the more explosive players in the league, who has scored in six straight games dating back to last season.
"Adrian is a special player," Cassel said. "He's been a special player since he's come into the league. The way that he works absolutely blows my mind each and every day. He doesn't take days off. In terms of my job. It always alleviates some pressure off the quarterback position when you can run the ball, and then teams have to come up and load the box in order to stop him.
"When that happens, you get a lot of one-on-one coverage on the outside, and that's always great for a quarterback because you're looking for the mismatch."
In addition to that, Jennings is one of the craftier route runners in football and Kyle Rudolph is an ascending tight end with an imposing catching radius.
The real story here, though, will be just how improved the Vikings' defense is under Zimmer.
The Minnesota D was 31st out of 32 teams a season ago using Frazier's antiquated cover-2 philosophy, something Zimmer has quickly morphed into an attacking scheme bent on taking the fight to the opposition.
This is a huge test because Brady is so adept at deciphering what's going on in front of him. Expect the Vikings, who possess a host of talented pass rushers like defensive ends Everson Griffen and Brian Robison as well as rookie hybrid Anthony Barr, to sugar the A-gaps in an effort to take advantage pf the Pats' perceived weak interior offensive line.
Whether center Ryan Wendell and guards Josh Kline and Dan Connolly can keep Brady clean will likely foreshadow the result in this one.
"They're going to try to rush us, and they do a good job of it," Brady said. "Miami did a good job of it. This team does a good job of it. (The Vikings) do a good job just with their front four, and they've got some good blitzes. It's a good pressure defense. It's going to force our communication, especially on the road, and force us to make quick decisions, so it's really about our execution and how well we do."
Belichick needs one more regular-season win to get to 200 for his career while Zimmer shoots for No. 2 so this might be a logical loss for the Vikings, especially when you consider the Patriots' record after a loss is an imposing 32-4 since the beginning of the 2003 season.
"It's been impressive watching the Vikings so far this year," Belichick said. "I think that obviously coach Zimmer has come in there with his program and it's been good -- been good in preseason, it was certainly good in St. Louis last weekend.
"It looks like all three units -- offense, defense, special teams -- are strong. They have a lot of good players. We'll need to have a good week of preparation. We'll need to play well on Sunday."
Sports Network predicted outcome: Patriots 24, Vikings 20
09/11 10:14:59 ET