Week 8 Pregame: New England @ Minnesota, 8:30 p.m.

Patriots 'at Home' in Dome on MNF?
Linemen Injuries Key to Both Teams

The mainstream sports media has pounded every non-impacting and obtuse statistic they could find about this game into our heads. We're all very well aware that the New England Patriots are 9-0 in games played in domes. We know that the Minnesota Vikings have won their last four Monday Night Football games at home.

Tom Brady this. Brad Johnson that. Bill Belichick the other. Brad Childress something else. (Mike Tice is now a boat anchor in Jacksonville. Just thought I'd throw that in.) Patriots are sixth against the run. Minnesota is first. Patriots are 15th in overall offense, Minnesota 13th. On and on.

But where do you begin to truly analyze this game?

Right up front. On the lines. This game will be won and lost in the so-called trenches. And that's far from good news for Patriots fans.

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New England Patriots (5-1) at Minnesota Vikings (4-2)

Guard Stephen Neal and backup center Russ Hochstein (who really is Neal's backup at guard), listed as "questionable" earlier this week (legitimate listings, unlike some other teams in the league), did not make the trip to Minnesota and are inactive for tonight. Also out and previously listed as "questionable" is tight end Daniel Graham, often a key blocker on both running and passing downs. And tackle Nick Kaczur also is listed as "questionable," and it looks like he may have to play.

On the other side, defensive ends Richard Seymour and Ty Warren, also listed "questionable", have made the trip but may be game-time decisions.

The mainstream sports media has pounded every non-impacting and obtuse statistic they could find about this game into our heads. We're all very well aware that the New England Patriots are 9-0 in games played in domes. We know that the Minnesota Vikings have won their last four Monday Night Football games at home.

Tom Brady this. Brad Johnson that. Bill Belichick the other. Brad Childress something else. (Mike Tice is now a boat anchor in Jacksonville. Just thought I'd throw that in.) Patriots are sixth against the run. Minnesota is first. Patriots are 15th in overall offense, Minnesota 13th. On and on.

But where do you begin to truly analyze this game?

Right up front. On the lines. This game will be won and lost in the so-called trenches. And that's far from good news for Patriots fans.

Guard Stephen Neal and backup center Russ Hochstein (who really is Neal's backup at guard), listed as "questionable" earlier this week (legitimate listings, unlike some other teams in the league), did not make the trip to Minnesota and are inactive for tonight. Also out and previously listed as "questionable" is tight end Daniel Graham, often a key blocker on both running and passing downs. And tackle Nick Kaczur also is listed as "questionable," and it looks like he may have to play.

On the other side, defensive ends Richard Seymour and Ty Warren, also listed "questionable", have made the trip but may be game-time decisions.

The losses and injures on the offensive line are most troublesome. When the Patriots have played well, it has been when they've been able to impose their will in the running game. The games in which they've struggled have been games against teams with solid run defenses. Again, Minnesota is first in the league in run defense.

That is greatly attributable to the performance of defensive tackles Pat Williams (listed as "probable" [foot]) and Kevin Williams, so it will be very tough to run up the middle. If the Patriots are going to run, especially early on, they're going to have to go outside. Neal, Hochstein, Kaczur and Graham are all on the right side of the line, so the Patriots are most likely to try the left end behind Logan Mankins, Matt Light and Ben Watson (or backup tight end Dave Thomas and tight end/fullbacks Heath Evans and Garrett Mills. Mills has not been active for a game this season.

That said, New England will probably try to rely on hot-and-cold rookie Laurence Maroney, who has much more speed and lateral movement than does punishing north-south Corey Dillon. Maroney is going to need his stiff arm as he tries to hit that sideline off the line of scrimmage the way he hit it on that kickoff return last Sunday.

If the Patriots cannot establish the run, that will make Brady's job almost unbearably difficult, mostly because of the status of that offensive line. His protection on his right side will be inconsistent at best, and on the other side he has Matt Light, who will be matched up against defensive ends Kenechi Udeze (listed as "questionable" [hip]) and Ray Edwards.

Even more likely is that New England will morph to their passing-ball-possession offense. Lots of short passes, screens and receiver screens, Dillon and Maroney dumps (Kevin Faulk, fortunately, has been upgraded from "questionable" to "probable" [ankle], and he may be involved), and Watson across the middle and down the seam. When opportunities present themselves, Brady will look for Chad Jackson and Doug Gabriel deep with Reche Caldwell and Troy Brown supporting.

Minnesota is middle of the pack in interceptions and near the bottom in forced fumbles. Most of those interceptions are spread out, and the Vikings don't have that prototype "shutdown corner." Brady generally plays well against that type of defense, because he is able to throw to all parts of the field, and he's among the best at finding the open receiver. It all depends if he has time to throw.

Of course, Minnesota took out Seattle's Matt Hasselback last week by rolling into his lower legs, a play on which (inexplicably) there was no penalty called. Hasselback is out for up to four weeks.

Seymour's and Warren's status will be key to the success of the defense. Minnesota can run the ball. The left side of the Vikings offensive line (center Matt Birk, guard Steve Hutchinson and tackle Bryant McKinnie) is as good as there is in the NFL. Like the Patriots, the right side is banged up, but that's not their strong suit anyway. Running back Chester Taylor is second in the league, and second stringer Mewelde Moore is no slouch.

With the front three/four weakened, a heavy burden falls to the linebackers and defensive secondary. If New England tries to cheat up against the run, look for Minnesota to try some trick play like a halfback option to try to exploit the situation. Of course, the Vikings receivers are in as bad as shape as New England's lines, so execution and success of those gadget plays may be lower percentage than normal.

Minnesota wide receivers Troy Washington (concussion) and Marcus Robinson (back) are listed as "questionable", while Travis Taylor (concussion) and former Patriot Bethel Johnson (hamstring) are "probable".

The Vikings don't often use two tight end sets, but they have a couple very serviceable tight ends in Jimmy Kleinsasser and former Patriot Jermaine Wiggins. This will be rookie placekicker Stephen Gostkowski's first trip to a dome. He's 5 for 8 on field goals. Minnesota's veteran Ryan Longwell is 13 of 16.

I can't stress enough how important field position and time of possession will be in this game. If, like the last few games, New England falls behind in time of possession, they're going to find it will be a lot harder to even things up in the second half. Amazingly, the Patriots are 10th in the league, and that's a tribute to the adjustments the coaching staff makes at halftime and the lionhearted defense that time and time again has stoutly stood with backs against the wall and not only kept teams off the scoreboard, but actually wore down offenses. Pretty impressive. Still, they can hardly afford to rely on the defense that way again.

If Maroney, or anyone, can reel off a couple of those fantastic returns, that will definitely help in the field position battle. One key will be that the Patriots don't score "too soon" if presented with a short field. One or two plays into the end zone is great, and you most definitely want the points, but you need to give the defense time to rest.

And, of course, protecting the ball and forcing turnovers always helps.

But make no mistake, this will be no walk in the park.

Keep heart, fans, and remember this. Two years ago, the Patriots were plagued with injuries to several very key players, and they were heading into Pittsburgh for a highly touted matchup against a somewhat surprising and up-and-coming team. That was the end of the Patriots record winning streak. But that streak, in the long run, was not the team's ultimate goal.

A lot of people think the Patriots held back in that game for several reasons. First, maybe the game wasn't really winnable anyway. Second, it wasn't worth risking injury to other players against a team that seemed to be out to make the injury list longer. Third, there was no point pulling out all the stops and show them everything you can do when you might see them further down the road.

The situation tonight is a little different, but there are a few obvious parallels. Oh, and that game was Week 8 on Oct. 31. Prediction: Vikings, 24-20.

Today's game will be broadcast on ESPN. Mike Tirico is the play-by-play announcer with Joe Theismann and Tony Kornheiser on color commentary. As usual, while I listen to the hacks on TV, I highly recommend tuning into Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti on the Patriots Rock Radio Network (WBCN 104.1 FM in Boston -- here is a list of New England radio stations that carry the simulcast.

And, finally, tune in and shout out on our live game open thread.

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