Whether Bill Belichick knows how to build a successful offense remains up for debate.
What’s not in question, however, is his ability to humble rookie head coaches.
Coming off a 10-3 victory over a New York Jets team that just benched their supposed franchise quarterback, the New England Patriots have a chance to extend their winning streak to four games if they handle business against the Minnesota Vikings.
Earning a victory over the Vikings would certainly give more credibility to the Patriots’ season, especially considering a handful of their wins came against the likes of Zach Wilson and Sam Ehlinger.
For Belichick, Thursday’s showdown against the 8-2 Vikings represents an opportunity to flex his game-planning brilliance for a national audience on multiple levels. And even though the Patriots will face an opponent that’s won eight of its first 10 games, they have an excellent shot at moving to 7-4.
After all, Minnesota’s record doesn’t tell the whole story.
So, with the second-winningest coach of all time squaring off against a first-year coach who once called New England home, Patriot Nation should feel confident heading into Thursday night.
A familiar foe (of sorts) for Bill Belichick
It’s one thing for Belichick to scout a new opponent. It’s slightly different when your adversary once had a spot on your roster.
As a testament to Belichick’s longevity and ability to identify bright football minds, he’ll have a chance to hand one of his former draft picks his third career loss. Kevin O’Connell entered the league as a third-round selection by the Patriots in 2008, but after attempting six passes as a rookie, he never played another NFL down.
Like former Patriot draft pick Kliff Kingsbury, O’Connell transitioned from the huddle to the sidelines. And by establishing a reputation as one of the top young offensive assistants in the league, the 37-year-old put himself in a position to run his own team.
Judging by the early results, the Vikings seem to be in good hands moving forward.
Yet just because O’Connell’s team sits atop the division doesn’t mean Thursday will end with a ninth win. Belichick has an excellent track record of defeating rookie head coaches, including sweeping Sean McDermott during his first season with the Buffalo Bills.
Plus, with the Patriots’ defense firing on all cylinders, Kirk Cousins and Co. could run into major trouble at home.
New England has the pieces to further expose the most overrated team in the NFL
An 8-2 record may make Minnesota the team to beat in the NFC North, but that certainly doesn’t make them the best team in the conference.
In fact, a deeper dive into some other numbers shows the Vikings aren’t nearly as good as their .800 winning percentage reflects.
Coming off a season in which they averaged 25 points per game, they’re actually averaging fewer points per game (23.1) in Cousins’ first year under O’Connell. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s defense ranks just 19th in points allowed (23.1 per game).
Further evidence that the Vikings’ 8-2 record is overrated?
According to Football Outsiders, they rank 24th in total DVOA–five spots below the Jacksonville Jaguars. By comparison, Belichick’s Patriots, despite all of their issues on offense, check in at No. 11.
That surprisingly high mark has almost everything to do with New England ranking No. 1 in Defense DVOA. Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick have done a terrific job coordinating a unit that has consistently put pressure on quarterbacks and played sticky coverage.
With NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate Matthew Judon being utilized effectively on stunts and Deatrich Wise Jr. and Josh Uche making strides as pass rushers, the Patriots have the personnel to overwhelm an injury-ravaged offensive line.
Winning the battle up front will provide a boost for a secondary that’s outplayed preseason expectations. Even after letting J.C. Jackson walk in free agency, the Patriots haven’t missed a beat at corner, with veteran Jonathan Jones making a smooth transition from the slot to the perimeter. Plus, rookies Jack Jones and Marcus Jones look like long-term building blocks.
Marrying a strong pass rush with tight coverage on Justin Jefferson (who will undoubtedly face double-teams) and tight end T.J. Hockenson should make life difficult for Cousins, who’s in the midst of his least-effective campaign in Minnesota.
Can the Patriots finally get their offense moving in the right direction against the Vikings?
Although the Vikings and the Patriots are currently slated to make the playoffs, both teams have flaws that make it difficult to see them truly contending for a Super Bowl title. Ultimately, the uber-experienced Belichick understands how to expose weaknesses better than anyone, and you can bet he’ll have some insight into O’Connell’s mindset thanks to his upbringing in the Patriots’ system.
Whether New England fans will have something to be thankful for by the final whistle hinges heavily on how Matt Patricia handles Mac Jones and the offense. Last week’s 10-3 win over the Jets did nothing to inspire confidence about Belichick’s strange decision to entrust a defensive coach with zero play-calling experience with managing both the offensive line and the overall offense.
Will Patricia finally start to show some semblance of growth in any regard? With injuries to Isaiah Wynn and David Andrews leaving the line at less than full strength, Jones may have even less time to throw. So, not only does Patricia have to figure out how to get more out of a depleted group, but he also has to call plays, communicate, and make adjustments with a quarterback who clearly isn’t the same player he was a year ago.
The Vikings game provides Patricia with an opportunity to build off what was a solid performance by Jones against a fast, physical Jets defense.
Feeding the dynamic duo of Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris to set up the play-action passing game needs to be a focal point of this week’s game plan. Plus, Patricia has to scheme up easy ways for Jones to get the ball in the hands of the highly-paid tight-end tandem of Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith.
At this point, the Patriots just need to have an average offense to truly be taken seriously in the AFC. With a stingy defense that ranks second in points allowed, they simply need the offense to score a few touchdowns and not turn the ball over.
But is a unit coached by Patricia capable of executing at that level?
So far, the answer has been a resounding no.
Perhaps the first-year offensive coordinator will finally turn the corner going up against a team led by a first-year head coach. However, if that happens, it’ll only be because of the man who inexplicably brought him back to Foxborough.
After all, as Kevin O’Connell learned the hard way more than a decade ago, everything runs through Bill Belichick in New England.
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