The Minnesota Vikings’ offense boasts Pro Bowl talents as a running back and wide receiver. The New England Patriots were able to limit the former on Thursday night, holding running back Dalvin Cook to 42 yards on 22 carries.
The last? different story.
New England near the U.S. There was no answer for Justin Jefferson in the 33–26 loss at Bank Stadium, giving up nine catches on 11 targets for 139 yards and a touchdown for Minnesota’s rising star receiver.
During that performance, Jefferson passed ex-Patriot and Viking Randy Moss to set the NFL record for receiving yards in a player’s first three seasons. He also became just the third receiver to reach 100 yards against the New England secondary, which was one of the team’s strongest units for 12 weeks.
Stopping Jefferson was clearly a priority for the Patriots. Top cornerback Jonathan Jones trailed the 23-year-old powerhouse for most of the game, and the Patriots often doubled him, using safety Devin McCourty as an over-the-top defender. Nothing worked.
Jefferson capped the Vikings’ first drive with a 6-yard touchdown run, then had receptions of 17, 21, 36 and 37 yards. His two longest wins both beat tight coverage from Jones and McCourty, one taking the series to 3rd and 7 and the other setting up what turned out to be a game-winning 15-yard touchdown pass. Adam Thielen with 9:32 remaining.
The good news for the Patriots is that few NFL receivers can match Jefferson’s rare talent, and since the Vikings are an NFC team, it will likely be years before these teams meet again. The bad news is that over the next month and a half, New England will be facing almost every other wideout who is part of this elite class.
“He’s not the only good receiver we’re going to see this year,” head coach Bill Belichick told reporters at his postgame press conference.
Including Jefferson, the Patriots’ schedule over the final seven weeks of the regular season includes matchups against eight players who ranked in the top 10 in receiving yards per game on Thursday:
1. Tyreek Hill, Miami Dolphins
2. Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings
3. Stefon Diggs, Buffalo Bills (twice)
4. DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona Cardinals
5. Davante Adams, Las Vegas Raiders
7. Jalen Waddle, Miami Dolphins
8. Jammer Chase, Cincinnati Bengals
10. Marquis Brown, Arizona Cardinals
New England Patriots quarterback Mack Jones
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The only pass-catchers the Patriots will avoid from this group are Cooper Kupp (sixth) of the Los Angeles Rams and Travis Kelce (ninth) of the Kansas City Chiefs. They’ll also look to Buffalo’s Gabriel Davis and Cincinnati’s Tye Higgins — two of the NFL’s best WR2s — and could face Raiders Pro Bowlers Hunter Renfro and Darren Waller if either is activated from the reserves. From New England to Vegas.
Pro Bowl cornerback J.C. The Patriots’ defensive backfield in particular excelled after Jackson exited the off-season, entering Thanksgiving ranked in the top three in both Football Outsiders’ DVOA interception rate and pass defense. The success validated Bill Belichick’s controversial decision not to add a big name to replace Jackson, instead filling the void by moving Jones out of his traditional slot role and adding impact rookie Jack Jones.
But the true ceiling of that unit will be revealed during the challenge at the end of this season, and it came down short on Thursday night. The Patriots will need more capable coverage — and a more disruptive pass rush — next Thursday when they welcome Diggs, Davis and quarterback Josh Allen to Gillette Stadium for an AFC East game with mammoth implications.
In the last two Patriots-Bills meetings last season, Buffalo scored 80 points and did not kick a single shot.
“Obviously, we didn’t do a good job (covering Jefferson) at all,” McCourty told reporters. “We have another guy who is very good next week so we have to see what we can do to improve how we handle that kind of guy. Next week between Diggs and Gabe Davis it will be a Will be a very similar challenge that we had (Thursday night) with The Jeffersons.
“If we play like this against No. 1 players, it’s going to be a long year.”