De­cem­ber has been Pa­tri­ots’ time to shine

Belichick, Brady have helped team go 64-13 dur­ing fi­nal month

Hartford Courant (Sunday) - - Nfl - By Kyle Hightower As­so­ci­ated Press

FOXBOR­OUGH, Mass. — De­cem­ber has been a spe­cial time for the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots dur­ing 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 New Eng­land’s 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 Min­ne­sota.

But even af­ter the Pa­tri­ots (8-3) earned their lat­est post-Turkey Day win last week over the Jets, Slater said the mes­sage com­ing from Belichick and Brady is far from a state of be­ing con­tent.

“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.

Min­ne­sota (6-4-1) has lost four straight reg­u­lar-season meet­ings with New Eng­land, 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.

Here are some things to watch for in Sun­day’s game:

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, as the de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor for Cincin­nati in 2010 and as the de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor for Dal­las in 2003, the Ben­gals beat New Eng­land 13-6 in 2013 with Zim­mer in charge of the de­fense.

Get­ting the ground game go­ing: The Vik­ings have the third-fewest rush­ing yards in the league this year, af­ter fin­ish­ing sev­enth last season. Though the suc­cess of their pass­ing game and par­tic­u­lar game sit­u­a­tions have fac­tored into them fall­ing to 28th in the NFL in at­tempts af­ter to­tal­ing the sec­ond-most rushes last year, they’ll need an uptick down the stretch and in the play­offs, if they make it, to keep win­ning.

At­tack­ing the perime­ter last week against the Pack­ers was pro­duc­tive, with Dalvin Cook and Ste­fon Diggs each tak­ing jet sweep plays for 9 and 12 yards. There’s an­other un­tapped source of rush­ing yardage that lies with quar­ter­back Kirk Cousins, too.

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