The Patriots came out of the bye week and took care of business on the road against the Jets, 27-13. While the victory was by no means dominant, New England looked as healthy as it has in weeks.
Week 13 provides a much tougher test against a 6-4-1 Minnesota team that’s firmly in the NFC playoff picture. But the Vikings will travel to Gillette Stadium for this matchup, where the Pats sit at 5-0 this season.
Here’s three things to watch for when these teams meet on Sunday:
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Home cooking for Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski
Gronk returned to the field against the Jets following a two game absence, but with the bye week mixed in there it was his first game in close to a month. It didn’t take long to tell that the rest did him well, as he hauled in a 34-yard touchdown from Brady in the first half.
Sure, Gronk finished with just three catches for 54 yards and the score, but his presence alone changed the entire offense. Brady had previously been locked in on Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon, over-targeting them 44 total times in the two previous games.
Gronk led the team with seven targets in this one, while Gordon and Edelman saw five apiece — Gordon caught all five for 70 yards, his most efficient game as a Patriot. Edelman managed his usual stat line as well, going for 84 yards and a touchdown. Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett, who’d practically been phased out of the offense in recent weeks, each caught both of their targets for 57 yards combined.
While the narrative that Gronkowski is having down season has legs to it, he’s been better than you’d think in four home games — averaging five catches for 85 yards. Brady’s also been far superior when playing in Foxborough this season, throwing for 305 yards per game (versus 250 on the road) and tossing an average of 2.2 touchdowns (versus 1.3 on the road). This spot screams for a classic Brady/Gronk breakout game that we’ve been waiting for.
The Patriots will finally operate with three running backs
Rex Burkhead hasn’t played since going on injured reserve after Week 3, but don’t forget this is a player the Patriots trusted with 19 touches out of the backfield in Week 1. Sony Michel didn’t play in that game, and after another impressive 21-133-1 line as a runner against the Jets, will remain the featured rusher.
But the days of Cordarrelle Patterson lining up at running back (outside of an occasional gadget play) are likely coming to an end, as Burkhead has been activated to the 53-man roster. The Patriots have been operating with just one or two true running backs for weeks now, which has led to a little bit too much work for James White and Michel, who New England knows it needs come playoff time.
With 137 touches on the season for the fragile White, and 133 for a player going through the grind of the NFL for the first time in Michel, Burkhead can provide some much needed veteran relief. Burkhead’s dual ability to both run and catch the ball makes him the perfect option to spell both backs, which we should see start to take place against Minnesota.
Did the AFC let the Patriots off the hook in Weeks 11 and 12?
If the Patriots make yet another run to the Super Bowl, the AFC is going to look back on Weeks 11 and 12 with disgust.
The Chiefs and Steelers were in full control of the two postseason byes, with 9-1 and 7-2-1 records respectively. Beating the Rams is a tough task, but the Chiefs fell to 9-2 when they failed to do so, while Pittsburgh stuttered in Denver to drop to 7-3-1. That leaves the Patriots as the two-seed in the AFC.
A big showdown in Pittsburgh on December 16 could determine who finishes higher in the standings between the Steelers and Patriots, while the Chiefs sit just one game up on the Pats — which is important because another loss would put New England ahead of Kansas City due to the head-to-head tiebreaker.
There’s a lot of football to be played, but the Patriots are creeping up the standings with a home game coming up in a stadium they are undefeated in this season. The rest of the AFC should be on notice.