Hannable: Sunday vs. Vikings is statement game for Patriots

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Photo credit Brad Penner/USA Today Sports

FOXBORO — For as nice as it was to pick up a win Sunday on the road following the blowout loss to the Titans and the bye week, it was still against the Jets.

New York entered the game 3-7 and were starting Josh McCown at quarterback, who entered with a quarterback rating below 40 this season. While the Patriots won by 14 points, it did not feel like a 14-point game.

The Patriots fell behind 7-0, went into the locker room at the half tied at 10, and overall were pretty inconsistent on both sides of the ball. The offense and defense each showed signs of being dominant, but also had times where they looked like they did in their three losses — very inconsistent.

The game really didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know. 

Yes, the Patriots are a team capable of bouncing back after a tough loss, especially against the Jets, but are they a team good enough to make a deep run in January? 

Sunday’s game against the Vikings will give us a much better idea.

Minnesota enters the game in desperate need of a win as they come into the contest 6-4-1 and trailing the Bears in the NFC North, but as of now are one of the two wild card teams. Every game is important for them the rest of the season. 

Besides a strange loss to the Bills, their losses have come to the Saints, Rams and Bears — all quality teams.

“This has really been an impressive team to watch,” Bill Belichick said Wednesday. “I think that Coach [Mike] Zimmer’s done, as usual, a tremendous job with his team. 13-3 last year, we saw a little bit of them at the end of the year, and then obviously this year, getting the schedule, a team we weren’t familiar with. We spent some time on them over the offseason and it looks like, to me, they’re even better than they were last year. They’re a very, very good football team. 

“They have good talent. They’re really well-coached. Defensively, this is, I’d say, as good of coaching as we’ll face. I think Mike does a tremendous job with fundamentals, with their schemes. They are very, very challenging, particularly in the critical situations – third down, red area, two-minute, things like that. They’re very good. He’s a great coach and has been for a long time and has that unit playing extremely well.”

The Vikings do a lot of things really well, and will provide one of the toughest tests the Patriots have had in a long time.

They are decent on offense ranked 14th overall and are 16th in points, but have difficulty running the ball, coming in 30th in the league. The Vikings are really dominant on the defensive side of the ball. They are ranked third overall, but are 10th in points allowed. 

Also, they are ranked at the top of the league in some of the biggest categories. 

Minnesota is the best in the league on third down, holding opponents to a 27.6 percentage and then are the best in the red zone, limiting opponents to scoring touchdowns 43.2 percent of the time.

“That’s going to be a huge part of this week’s game against the Vikings,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “This is as good a red area defense as there is in the league. They’re very well-schooled at what they do, they’re physical and fast and there’s not a lot of margin for error. 

“Our execution – we’re just going to have to work hard this week and know what we want to get done and then try to go out there and execute it against a really good defense on Sunday in those situations. Because when we’re down there, at this time of the year, you have to make the most of every opportunity you have to score touchdowns.” 

While the game being at home is a big advantage, it will tell a lot more about what this Patriots team is. A win over a likely playoff team fighting for seeding and a division title is much more impressive than beating a team on the road that already is thinking about their offseason.

In addition, the Patriots have three AFC East games remaining, which are all essentially wins (they will not lose in Miami again, plus this week and then at Pittsburgh in Week 15.

Given the remaining schedule, this is a statement game for New England. 

If it can come away with a win, that’s as good of a sign as any that it is capable of a deep playoff run. But, if it comes away with a loss, maybe this team just doesn’t have what it takes and is looking at a game on wild card weekend and maybe not another trip to the AFC title game.