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December Dominance Again

December 3, 2018
Tom Brady signals a first down after his run in the first half. AP PHOTO Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

FOXBORO -- Whatever fading-dynasty issues the Patriots may be experiencing (fueling a vulnerability narrative that is exciting the nation), these issues have not enfeebled Bill Belichick’s 2018 team on its own turf.

At Gillette Stadium the Patriots have been as mean as ever. They improved to 6-0 there this season by smothering the Minnesota Vikings, 24-10, on Sunday.

In the fourth quarter Belichick even snarled at Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen to “shut the (bleep) up” when Thielen complained about the Patriots coach using an injury delay caused by New England’s Patrick Chung to consider challenging an official’s spot on a Vikings first down. (The first-down ruling on the field was upheld after Belichick did challenge.)

Thielen, who scored Minnesota’s only touchdown on a 5-yard catch in the second quarter, sounded humbled by having drawn the wrath of the Coach of Coaches.

“I have a lot of respect for him and what he’s done,” Thielen said about Belichick after the game. “I can’t lose it like that.”

“Bill’s fiery,” said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. “We see it every day.”

Belichick’s postgame press conference was typically lacking similar fire. He was asked whether his confrontation with Thielen was a case of two competitive people exchanging holiday greetings.

“Yeah, pretty much,” he answered.

With four games remaining in this 2018 regular season, the 9-3 Patriots are No. 2 in the AFC playoff standings, just one game behind the Kansas City Chiefs, over whom they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. Despite their supposed weaknesses and issues, the Patriots keep on winning because winning habits are hard to break.

But on the road, where the Patriots are just 3-3 so far this season, Belichick’s team has not been quite so tough. Their three road losses have been by 11, 16 and 24 points ... and have looked uglier than that.

At home the Patriots have been good enough to beat the Texans and Chiefs, who would be the first and third seeds in the AFC were the playoffs to start today.

On the road the Patriots have been inconsistent enough to get manhandled by the Jaguars, Lions and Titans, three teams that are a combined 14-20 mess.

“We see what happens when we’re not focused, not ready to play. We’ve been down that road,” said Patriots safety Duron Harmon after Sunday’s win at home. “When we come ready, we feel like we have a really good defense.”

In the fourth quarter, Harmon and Jonathan Jones each intercepted Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (32 of 44, 201 yards, 1 TD) and New England for the game held Minnesota to just 278 total yards. Harmon sounded confident the Patriots from here on will be ready to rumble everywhere they play.

But the Patriots’ road back to the Super Bowl probably still must go through Foxboro. Not that this is anything new.

New England has not won a road playoff game in 12 years. That in large measure is due to the Patriots having been so good for so long that they don’t really need to do road playoff games. Sixteen of the Patriots’ last 18 AFC playoff games have been in Foxboro. The two road games during that stretch were AFC title game losses in Denver. Their last road playoff win was in San Diego during the 2006 postseason, followed the next week by a loss in Indianapolis in the AFC title game.

On Sunday, 41-year-old Tom Brady, who has certainly lost more yards to kneel-downs from victory formation than any quarterback in NFL history, reached 1,000 career rushing yards with a four-yard scramble for a first down in the first quarter. (“Hopefully I don’t go backwards next week,” Brady quipped). The Patriots were in the process of clinching their 18th consecutive winning season (extending their post-1970 NFL record).

At 6-5-1, the Vikings must be classified as a disappointment so far this season. But they are still pretty good. And so was the quality of this New England victory.

After Minnesota tied it 10-10 with 2:20 left in the third quarter, the Patriots brought down the hammer. They zipped 75 yards in four plays, with Josh Gordon scoring on a 35-yard pass play from Brady (24 of 32, 311 yards, 1 INT) with 35 seconds left in the third quarter. Gordon had not been targeted once in the first half. He had three catches for 58 yards in the second half.

“I just had to be patient,” said Gordon. “I think that’s just how the flow of the game was going. We all let it play itself out.”

On their next possession the Patriots went 50 yards in six plays, with fullback James Develin sledgehammering in from two yards out for his second touchdown of the day.

Now it is back on the road for the Patriots, trying to protect at the very least a divisional-round bye in next month’s playoffs. This coming Sunday they will be in Miami, where the Patriots have lost four of their last five games.

“A place where we struggle,” said wide receiver Julian Edelman.

And from there it will be on to Pittsburgh the following Sunday.

“We understand the urgency we have now,” said Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers. “Now it’s time for real football and to be on our ‘A’ games.”

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