Pa­tri­ots en­ter­ing peak time

De­cem­ber typ­i­cally has brought out best in Brady, Belichick

Chicago Sun-Times (Sunday) - - SPORTS - BY KYLE HIGHTOWER

FOXBOR­OUGH, Mass. — The month of De­cem­ber has been a spe­cial time for the Pa­tri­ots in the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady era.

Since the pair ar­rived in 2000, the Pa­tri­ots are 64-13 dur­ing the fi­nal month of the reg­u­lar season. Brady has been the starter for all but six of those vic­to­ries — four dur­ing his rookie season in 2000 and two in 2008, when he suf­fered a season-end­ing knee in­jury in the opener.

Still, the 41-year-old quar­ter­back’s 58 De­cem­ber wins are the most in NFL his­tory. His .843 win­ning per­cent­age is sec­ond-best among quar­ter­backs in the Su­per Bowl era. Roger Staubach (17-3, .850) is first.

Pa­tri­ots spe­cial teams cap­tain Matt Slater is one of the few play­ers left on the Pa­tri­ots’ ros­ter with enough ten­ure to ap­pre­ci­ate that run and the em­pha­sis Belichick puts on this por­tion of the season.

“As coach says, ‘Foot­ball season starts af­ter Thanks­giv­ing,’ ” Slater said.

Just for good mea­sure, Brady is 75-18 in reg­u­lar-season games played on or af­ter Thanks­giv­ing.

Three of the Pa­tri­ots’ fi­nal five games are at home, be­gin­ning with Sun­day’s matchup with the Vik­ings. But even af­ter the Pa­tri­ots (8-3) earned their lat­est postThanks­giv­ing win last week over the Jets, Slater said the team is in far from a con­tented state.

“I don’t think we’ve played our best foot­ball yet,” Slater said. “I think it was a step in the right di­rec­tion.”

That’s not good news for a Vik­ings team that is in position to make the play­offs but is also a few losses away from peer­ing in from the out­side.

The Vik­ings (6-4-1) have lost four straight reg­u­lar-season meet­ings with the Pa­tri­ots, though the teams haven’t met since 2014. The Vik­ings have won twice at New Eng­land, but their last vic­tory was in 2000 in Belichick’s first year.

Run­ning back Dalvin Cook said the Vik­ings are try­ing to con­cen­trate on them­selves and not the Pa­tri­ots’ mys­tique .

“We’re go­ing to get caught up in us play­ing good foot­ball, and that’s what we’ve got to fo­cus on,” he said. “Every­body can go into the whole thing of ‘New Eng­land this.’ We re­spect Tom, we re­spect the Pa­tri­ots, we re­spect ev­ery­thing they’ve got go­ing. But it’s more about us at this point, about how we’re play­ing foot­ball and about just the lit­tle things we’re do­ing. We’ve got to go in and fo­cus on those.”

Tough on Tom

Vik­ings coach Mike Zim­mer’s de­fenses have had some suc­cess in min­i­miz­ing Brady’s im­pact in some matchups against the five-time Su­per Bowl cham­pion. Though Zim­mer’s teams have lost three of four games against the Pa­tri­ots — with the Vik­ings in 2014, when he was Ben­gals’ de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor in 2010, and when he was the Cow­boys’ de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor in 2003 — the Ben­gals beat the Pa­tri­ots 13-6 in 2013 with Zim­mer in charge of the de­fense.

Over those four games, Brady has been in­ter­cepted only once, but his av­er­age against Zim­mer’s de­fenses is only 204 pass­ing yards and one touch­down with a 56.3 per­cent com­ple­tion rate.

The game at New Eng­land for the Vik­ings is sand­wiched be­tween matchups with the Pack­ers’ Aaron Rodgers and the Sea­hawks’ Rus­sell Wil­son, so Zim­mer, his staff and his play­ers have had their hands full lately and will con­tinue to into the next month.

“Like Belichick said about Rodgers,” Zim­mer said of Brady, “I’m glad he’s not in our di­vi­sion.”

Fa­mil­iar foe

Sun­day will be a re­union of sorts for Pa­tri­ots re­ceiver Cor­dar­relle Pat­ter­son, who spent the first four years of his ca­reer with the Vik­ings (2013-16) be­fore be­ing signed by the Raiders the fol­low­ing year.

Pat­ter­son had a ca­reer-high four touch­down catches and was used out of the back­field as a rookie in 2013. But he de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion as bad route-run­ner and barely got any time at re­ceiver in his sec­ond and third sea­sons in Min­ne­sota.

He bounced back and had a ca­reer-best 52 catches dur­ing his fi­nal season in 2016.

“They’re us­ing him way bet­ter than we did,” said Zim­mer, who coached Pat­ter­son for three sea­sons be­gin­ning in 2014. “I think they use him in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ways. I mean, it’s good to see for him. I wish we would have used him a lit­tle bit bet­ter.”

ADAM BETTCHER/GETTY IMAGES

Run­ning back Dalvin Cook says the Vik­ings are tun­ing out talk of the Pa­tri­ots’ prow­ess en­ter­ing Sun­day.

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