When last we saw them, the Patriots had all but fallen apart, escaping San Diego with a 3-point win against a barely competent opponent. And now, on All Hallow's Eve, Randy Moss was back to haunt his former home, as well as a still-questionable Patriots secondary.
So you could say things were a little spooky coming in to today's game, and they stayed that way for Patriots fans until the second half, which began tied at 7-7.
The Patriots' offense fizzled early. The running game was especially anemic, amassing a total of just 9 yards by halftime, though three of them were disproportionately crucial, gained on a direct snap to Li'l Danny Woodhead™ good for the Patriots' first touchdown of the game, and the offensive highlight of the first half.
After the half, BenJarvus Green-Ellis came up huge, finishing with 112 yards and two touchdowns, including the one that put the game away inside the final two-minute warning.
Brady wound up decent at 16 of 27 for 240 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. On that final fourth-quarter drive, Wes Welker and Woodhead co-starred, each converting a crucial third-and-long to keep the rally alive.
But the Pats ultimately survived the Vikes by putting points up on the board while chewing up more of the clock on offense than they had in the first half, giving a taxed defense some rest; and that strategy put the biggest spotlight on the Law Firm.
Today also saw much-improved O-Line play on the Patriots' part since last week's sack-fest. Dan Connolly especially redeemed himself at left guard. With stronger performances up and down the line, the pass protection for Tom Brady at times verged on the ridiculous. "Pitching a tent back there," was how Joe Buck described Brady's leisurely window in the pocket on some plays, dorkily oblivious as usual to his double entedre.
Ironically, though, it was on a scrambling seat-of-the-pants play that Brady earned his single touchdown pass in the third quarter, finding a wide-open Brandon Tate deep downfield while feinting and faking his way around the rush. The startling 35-yard pitch and catch, followed by a 30-yard run to score the go-ahead points, was the first of Tate's career.
Defense holds its own in a game of inches and determination
The offense put the seal on the game in the final quarter, but it had been the bend-but-don't-break (and occasionally-get-a-lucky-interception) defense that kept the game within reach for the first 45 minutes or so, despite the fact that Minnesota led--in fact, finished the game ahead--in just about every statistical category. Somehow, the Patriots just kept that from being reflected on the scoreboard.
The finest hour for the Patriots defense today came in an impressive goal line stand against the Vikings' sledgehammer of a runningback, Adrian Peterson, at the end of the second quarter.
Admittedly, the fact that the Patriots' D had allowed the Vikings to march down to the goal line put a bit of a damper on their ensuing heroics. But what saved them, here and in general, was solid play from the defensive line.
When Adrian Peterson was stopped at the goal line on that second-quarter fourth-and-goal, the Vikes' hopes were finally stamped out by Vince Wilfork, falling like a slab of granite onto Peterson to finally touch him down short of the goal line. Ron Brace was also key to holding the line on that play, standing up his opponent until several seconds past the whistle, like a bull elephant in a brawl.
By the end of the game, the Vikings were back within four points, but that was mostly the fault of the ever-problematic DBs. Especially the increasingly annoying Brandon Meriweather, whose pass-interference penalty put the ball on the New England 9 during that Vikings scoring drive, and Jonathan Wilhite, who drew an illegal contact penalty a few moments later, which negated a third-down stop for DE Myron Pryor at the 3 yard line. Though Wilhite's penalty would put the ball on the 1 with a first down, Pryor's hit had knocked Brett Favre out of the game.
With the ball gift-wrapped at the goal line, Vikings backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson could finish what Favre had started, and even pulled off a two-point conversion, mandating a Patriots touchdown to put the game away.
That's when the Patriots offense stepped up to that challenge and stepped in to win the fourth quarter with their lengthy touchdown drive. By the time Jackson got the ball back, starting at his own 20, with a minute and change on the clock and down by two scores, it was an entirely different story. On his first play of that series, he was sacked for a loss of 10 yards. Jackson played on gamely, but there was really nowhere for him to go.
Speaking of Favre...
...and the hit that knocked him out: the perfectly clean and legal contact from Pryor, well below helmet level, drove Favre's shoulder pads into his chin, leaving a cut that required eight stitches. That's what sent the old gunslinger packing, just in case there are any haters reading who want to make a case out of it.
That, and the fact that he shouldn't have even been out there in the first place.
Really, it was only a matter of time before some defensive end or blitzing linebacker many years Favre's junior was going to have to do his job and risk hurting an old man. Two weeks ago, my father and I were saying this to each other while we were watching the Vikes play the Cowboys in Minnesota. On one play during that game, Favre, bending down to pick up a fumbled snap, was moving like the Tin Man jonesing for oil.
Coming in to this game, now playing with broken bones in his ankle, every FOX pregame analyst said that Favre probably shouldn't be on the field. And yet, there he was anyway, at his own insistence.
Maybe it was just in keeping with the Halloween theme. Brett Favre: Zombie Quarterback. Falling apart before our very eyes, yet on he lurches! He can't be stopped! He can't be reasoned with!
In seriousness, though, watching Brett Favre reminds me of watching the A&E show Intervention. It seems that no amount of pain, injury, age or disappointment for his team is going to deter Brett Favre from pursuing his addiction to football. Someone may need to save Brett from himself.