The New England Patriots will be back on national television this week, taking on the Minnesota Vikings in one of the biggest slots in all of regular season football: the two teams will square off on Thanksgiving, with kickoff for the primetime meeting at Minnesota’s U.S. Bank Stadium scheduled for 8:20 p.m. ET.
The stakes will be high for both teams. The Patriots are 6-4 and the current sixth seed in a highly competitive AFC, while the 8-2 Vikings are ranked second in the NFC despite coming off a 40-3 blowout loss to Dallas.
That defeat was just the second the team of head coach Kevin O’Connell had to suffer this season following a 24-7 loss to Philadelphia in Week 2. The other eight games were all won by the Vikings, including two victories in two games versus the AFC East so far: Minnesota beat the Miami Dolphins 24-16 in Week 6, and the Buffalo Bills 33-30 in overtime in Week 10.
Despite those wins and the team’s general record, the stats paint an interesting picture:
- Record: 8-2 (1st NFC North)
- Offense: 22.9 points/game (13th), 338.5 yards/game (18th), -0.002 EPA/play (18th)
- Defense: 23.1 points/game (19th), 388.9 yards/game (29th), 0.012 EPA/play (15th)
- Scoring differential: -2 (16th)
- Turnover differential: +7 (t-3rd)
As can be seen, the Vikings’ stats are all over the place. Based on the numbers, they should be a lot worse than their 8-2 record. The scoring differential in particular is noteworthy: Minnesota is the only team in the current playoff picture in either conference with a negative number. For comparison, the Patriots’ opponent last week — the New York Jets — entered the game ranked 10th in the NFL with a +20 scoring differential.
So, why are the Vikings 8-2? Some opportunistic football on offense and defense plus some struggling opponents have played a role in this. Of course, the team does have considerable talent on both offense and defense as well.
With that said, let’s now jump right to the Vikings’ active roster to get to know each of the players currently with the Patriots’ Week 12 opponent.
(Note: The 53-man roster is up-to-date as of Wednesday 7 a.m. ET; *denotes projected starter)
- Kirk Cousins* (8)
- Nick Mullens (12)
The Vikings’s quarterback group is led by veteran Kirk Cousins, who is now in his 11th season in the NFL and fifth with the organization. Through 10 games, Cousins has had his ups and downs: he has been serviceable at times but not necessarily set the world on fire either.
In total, he has completed 239 of his 377 pass attempts (63.4%) for 2,461 yards with 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions. His EPA of 0.050 is ranked just 25th in the league.
Nonetheless, there is no question that he is Minnesota’s QB1 ahead of backup Nick Mullens.
- Dalvin Cook* (4)
- Alexander Mattison (2)
- Kene Nwangwu (26 | KR)
- C.J. Ham (30 | FB)
Before speaking about the star of the Vikings’ backfield, Dalvin Cook, a quick shoutout to C.J. Ham: the 29-year-old has a perfect name for a fullback.
As far as Cook is concerned, he has been spectacular yet again. Ranking second on the team with 945 yards from scrimmage and first with seven touchdowns, he is one of the better running backs in football: a viable between-the-tackles runner who can also make plays in the passing game, he is as valuable a player as any for the Minnesota offense.
The rest of the group has played a comparatively small role, with Alexander Mattison the No. 2 on the depth chart. Mattison has played 184 offensive snaps compared to Cook’s 484, while also registering roughly a third of the touches (53 to 178).
- Justin Jefferson* (18)
- Adam Thielen* (19)
- K.J. Osborn* (17)
- Jalen Reagor (5 | PR)
- Jalen Nailor (83)
The Vikings usually employ a three-receiver offense, with Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn as the top players at the position; former first-round draft pick Jalen Reagor and rookie Jalen Nailor play a minimal role.
While Thielen is the leader of the group due to his experience, the most productive out of the five wideouts on the Minnesota roster is Justin Jefferson. The third-year man, frankly, has been spectacular throughout the season: catching 72 passes on 105 targets, Jefferson has gained 1,093 yards and scored four touchdowns — leading the team in all four categories. A true WR1, he has a case as arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL right now.
That does not mean that Thielen and Osborn in particular can be taken lightly. Thielen has caught 45 throws for 492 yards, while Osborn has been on the receiving end of 27 for 237; both have also found the end zone twice.
- T.J. Hockenson* (87)
- Johnny Mundt (86)
- Nick Muse (34)
With Irv Smith Jr. suffering a serious ankle injury, the Vikings went out to acquire Detroit Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson via trade ahead of the early-November deadline. Minnesota sent second- and third-round picks to its division rivals to acquire Hockenson and a fourth-rounder plus a conditional fourth.
The team’s new TE1 has been solid so far. In three games as a Viking, Hockenson has caught 21 passes for 149 yards. He will be going up against the Patriots for a second time this season, after catching one 6-yard pass in a 29-0 Lions loss in Week 5.
- Christian Darrisaw* (71 | LT)
- Brian O’Neill* (75 | RT)
- Blake Brandel (64)
- Oli Udoh (74)
- Vederian Lowe (63)
While Christian Darrisaw is the Vikings’ starting left tackle, the second-year man will be out against the Patriots: a concussion sustained last Sunday will make him unable to play on a short week. Accordingly, the Vikings’ struggling offensive line will have to operate without its best player; former sixth-round pick Blake Brandel is the lead candidate to take over.
On the right side of the line, fifth-year man Brian O’Neill will be holding down the fort. O’Neill, who is one of two players on the Vikings roster to play all 675 offensive snaps so far this season, has been solid.
Interior offensive line
- Ezra Cleveland* (72 | LG)
- Garrett Bradbury* (56 | C)
- Ed Ingram* (67 | RG)
- Chris Reed (62)
- Austin Schlottmann (65)
The Vikings’ interior offensive line has been durable this season, with Cleveland (674), Bradbury (673) and Ingram (675) missing just three snaps all year between them. The results, however, have been uneven despite their experience alongside one another.
The group has been credited with 13 surrendered sacks, according to Pro Football Focus, with second-round rookie Ingram responsible for eight of them. The Patriots’ interior pass rush will be without its most disruptive player — Christian Barmore, who is on injured reserve — but the matchup against the youngster can be exploited nonetheless.
Interior defensive line
- Harrison Phillips* (97)
- Dalvin Tomlinson* (94)
- Jonathan Bullard (93)
- James Lynch (92)
- Ross Blacklock (96)
- Esezi Otomewo (90)
- Khyiris Tonga (95)
Tomlinson’s status for Thursday’s game is in question, and he would be a considerable loss given his status as a starter-level player. If he is out, the Vikings will likely again turn to Jonathan Bullard to start alongside Harrison Phillips.
Bullard would be a downgrade, though, especially from a pass-rushing perspective: Bullard’s pressure rate is a mere 3.0 percent compared to Tomlinson’s 8.8 — highest among Minnesota’s interior D-linemen.
- Danielle Hunter* (99)
- Za’Darius Smith* (55)
- D.J. Wonnum (98)
- Patrick Jones II (91)
- Luiji Vilain (43)
The Vikings have some solid depth along the edge, with Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith as the starters and D.J. Wonnum a quality third option. The trio has accounted for a majority of Minnesota’s 26 sacks so far this season.
Smith leads the group with 9.5 takedowns so far, followed by Hunter’s 6.0 and Wonnum’s 3.5. Jones’ 2.0 sacks are also worth mentioning, despite him playing a smaller role as the other three edge defenders.
- Eric Kendricks* (54)
- Jordan Hicks* (58)
- Brian Asamoah (33)
- Troy Dye (45)
Even in his eighth year in the NFL Kendricks continues to be one of the better off-ball linebackers in the game. A durable player capable of making the big play — his fumble recovery for a touchdown against the Bills being an example — the 30-year-old is the leader of Minnesota’s front seven.
Starting alongside him is first-year Viking Jordan Hicks. The veteran, who spent time in Philadelphia and Arizona before joining the club, his an all-around defender just like his running mate.
Brian Asamoah and Troy Dye, meanwhile, are core special teamers.
- Patrick Peterson* (7)
- Chandon Sullivan* (39)
- Andrew Booth Jr.* (23)
- Akayleb Evans (21)
- Kris Boyd (29)
- Duke Shelley (20)
The Vikings’ cornerback group has taken several hits recently beyond third-year man Cameron Dentzler being placed on injured reserve.
Rookie Andrew Booth Jr. and valuable rotational option Akayleb Evans will both miss the game due to knee and concussion issues, respectively; the team will have to turn to Kris Boyd — Minnesota’s leader in special teams snaps — and Duke Shelley to start on the outside opposite former All-Pro and current CB1 Patrick Peterson.
The third starting spot in the secondary, meanwhile, is in the safe hands of slot cornerback Chandon Sullivan. With Dantzler out, he and Peterson have been the mainstays at the position.
- Harrison Smith* (22)
- Camryn Bynum* (24)
- Josh Metellus (44)
- Theo Jackson (25)
While there are questions at cornerback, the safety spot is relatively settled with Harrison Smith and Camryn Bynum a solid one-two punch. Smith is the elder statesman of the group and a leader both on and off the field — look no further than his team-high four interceptions; Bynum has developed nicely since arriving as a fourth-round draft choice a year ago.
Of course, the group will be missing one of its starter-caliber players. First-round rookie Lewis Cine will miss the remainder of the season because of a leg fracture; Jackson was brought aboard to fill his roster spot but has been used exclusively in the kicking game so far.
The actual No. 3 safety is Josh Metellus, who also is used heavily on special teams but has played his fair share of snaps on defense as well.
- Greg Joseph (1 | K)
- Ryan Wright (14 | P)
- Andrew DePaola (42 | LS)
While rookie punter Ryan Wright and veteran long snapper Andrew DePaola have been solid, the Vikings’ place kicking has been an issue: Greg Joseph has not been good both as a field goal and extra point kicker.
The numbers speak for themselves. The fifth-year man, who is in his second season in Minnesota has made just 14 of 19 field goal attempts and 21 of 25 extra points. His combined success rate of 79.5 percent is the lowest in the NFL among qualifying kickers.
As far as the return game is concerned, the roles are clear: Kene Nwangwu (23.9 yards/return) is the team’s kickoff returner, with Jalen Reagor (6.8 yards/return) handling punts.