The Minnesota Vikings offense boasts Pro Bowl talent at running back and wide receiver. The New England Patriots successfully limited the former Thursday night, holding Dalvin Cook for 42 yards on 22 carries.
The last? Different story.
New England had no answer for Justin Jefferson in its 33-26 loss at U.S. Bank Stadium, nine catches on 11 targets for 139 yards and one touchdown to Minnesota’s rising star receiver.
During that performance, Jefferson surpassed ex-Patriot and Viking Randy Moss to set the NFL record for receiving yards in a player’s first three seasons. He also became only the third pass catcher to surpass 100 yards against this New England secondary, which was one of the strongest units on the team for 12 weeks.
Stopping Jefferson was clearly a priority for the Patriots. Top cornerback Jonathan Jones shadowed the electric 23-year-old for much of the game, and the Patriots often double-covered him with safety Devin McCourty as an over-the-top defenseman. Nothing worked.
Jefferson capped the Vikings’ opening drive with a 6-yard touchdown, then went on to knock down receptions of 17, 21, 36, and 37 yards. His two longest wins both beat tight coverage by Jones and McCourty, with one moving the chains on third-and-7 and the other setting up a game-winning 15-yard touchdown pass to Adam Thielen with 9:32. other.
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 will agree again. The bad news is that New England will face almost every other wideout that is in that elite class for the next month and a half.
“He’s not the only good receiver we’re going to see this year,” head coach Bill Belichick told reporters at his post-game press conference.
Including Jefferson, the Patriots’ schedule for the last seven weeks of the regular season includes matchups against eight players who placed in the top 10 for receiving yards per game on Thursday:
1. Tyrek Hill, Miami Dolphins
2. Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings
3. Stephen Diggs, Buffalo Bills
4. The Andre Hopkins, Arizona Cardinals
5. Davante Adams, Las Vegas Raiders
7. Jaylen Waddle, Miami Dolphins
8. Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals
10. Marchioness Brown, Arizona Cardinals
The only pass catchers the Patriots will avoid from that group are Los Angeles Rams wideout Cooper Kupp (sixth) and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (ninth). They’ll also see Buffalo’s Gabriel Davis and Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins – two of the NFL’s better WR2s – and may have to contend with Raiders Pro Bowlers Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller if one of the injured reserve is activated in time for New England’s Week 15 trip to Vegas.
The Patriots defensive backfield largely excelled following the off-season exit of Pro Bowl cornerback JC Jackson, entering Thanksgiving in the top three in both Football Outsiders’ interception percentage and pass defense DVOA. That success cemented Bill Belichick’s controversial decision not to add a big-name replacement for Jackson, instead filling the void by taking Jones out of his traditional closing role and adding impact rookie Jack Jones.
But that unit’s true ceiling will be revealed during this end-of-season gauntlet, and it fell short Thursday night. The Patriots need more competent coverage — and a more disruptive pass rush — next Thursday as they welcome Diggs, Davis and quarterback Josh Allen to Gillette Stadium for an AFC East game with mammoth playoff implications.
In the last two Patriots-Bills meetings last season, Buffalo scored 80 points and did not kick once.
“Obviously we didn’t get it right at all[to beat Jefferson],” McCourty told reporters. deal with such a guy. Next week between Diggs and Gabe Davis, it will be a similar challenge to what we have (Thursday night) with Jefferson.
“If we play like this against number 1 boys, it will be a long year.”