VIKINGS // PATRIOTS OVERVIEW
The 8-3 Patriots vs the 6-4-1 Vikings is one of the more exciting games on the slate from a real-life perspective, as this game matches up two teams that were among the last four standing in the playoffs last season, with major 2018 playoff implications in this game as well. If the season ended today, the Vikings would edge into the top Wild Card spot in the NFC, while the Patriots would enter the postseason with a first-round bye as the number two seed in the AFC.
This is also an exciting game from a style of play perspective, as each of these teams ranks top eight in pace of play, and each also ranks top 10 in plays per game. With the Patriots playing a bend-but-don’t-break defense and forcing teams to throw to keep up (fifth highest opponent pass play rate in the league), they are also allowing the seventh most opponent plays per game. The Vikings rank top five in pass play rate, and they will be happy to attack through the air in this spot — creating opportunities for a back-and-forth affair.
The biggest matchup for fantasy upside will take place in the red zone, where the Vikings have allowed the second lowest red zone touchdown rate in the league, and the Patriots — while ranking 17th in red zone touchdown rate allowed — have been better in the red zone at home, and they are taking on a Vikings team that has struggled in this part of the field (25th in red zone touchdown rate). Vegas has opened the Patriots as aggressive favorites at -6.0. This game carries an attractive Over/Under of 48.5.
VIKINGS PASS OFFENSE
With the Patriots failing to get any pressure on quarterbacks this year (30th in adjusted sack rate) and running one of the man-heaviest coverage schemes in the NFL, they are allowing the second deepest average depth of target in the NFL. Unlike Matt Patricia’s unit in Detroit, however (which is the only team that has allowed a deeper aDOT than the Patriots — and has boosted opponent catch rate by 5.3% above the league average), the Patriots are allowing the third lowest catch rate in the NFL, behind only the Ravens and Jaguars. This has led to the Patriots ranking fifth in yards allowed per pass attempt — and it creates a situation where volume is important for wide receivers going against them.
Of course, “volume” is one of the first words that comes to mind when you think of the Vikings’ passing attack, which has thrown the ball at the fourth highest rate in football while racking up the third most pass attempts in the league. Eleven games into the season, there are only two players in football seeing more targets per game than the 11.3 that Adam Thielen is seeing. Incredibly, one of those two players is Stefon Diggs, who is tied with Julio Jones for the NFL lead in targets per game at 11.4.
The matchup is not great for either Diggs or Thielen, as the Patriots worry less about slot vs perimeter duties and instead tend to play matchups — which will likely put Stephon Gilmore on Diggs and Jason McCourty on Thielen. Gilmore has allowed only 27 catches on 61 passes thrown into his coverage (44.3%), while McCourty has allowed 32 catches on 62 pass attempts that have come his way (51.6%). Thielen has hauled in 93 of 124 targets this year (75%), with a 58% slot rate that creates easier throws for Kirk Cousins. Diggs has hauled in 79 of 114 targets (69.3%), with a lot of these completions coming at or around the line of scrimmage. Diggs mixes in three or four downfield looks each week with all the short passes that come his way, giving him a path to upside. These are two of the most elite route-runners in the NFL, and each guy can make tight-window catches, creating plenty of opportunity for each to pay off in what should be a pass-heavy game script for the visiting team. Each guy should also be able to run a good 20% to 30% of his routes on coverage liabilities Jonathan Jones or J.C. Jackson.
Behind these two, it’s Laquon Treadwell on the field for most of the game but seeing almost no schemed work and simply running into around three targets per game. He’ll need a broken play or two to be relevant. Kyle Rudolph has seen recent target counts of 7 // 2 // 5 // 7, though his yardage upside is slim in this offense, requiring him to hit for a touchdown in order to make a dent.
VIKINGS RUN OFFENSE
The New England Patriots have been perfectly average against the run this year, ranking 14th in rushing yards allowed and 18th in yards allowed per carry, creating opportunities for running backs to pick up yards between the 20s. Of greater concern for Dalvin Cook is the fact that only three teams have allowed fewer touchdowns to running back this season than the Patriots, along with the fact that the Vikings are one of the pass-heaviest teams in the NFL, and Cook has not topped 10 carries in a game since Week 1. Especially on DraftKings and FantasyDraft, Cook is priced more for his name value than for his actual usage or production. With Latavius Murray taking recent carry counts of 10 // 4 // 11 (to Cook’s recent stretch of 10 // 9 // 10), the Vikings’ lead back is going to need a highly efficient afternoon or a spike in workload to be relevant on this slate.
PATRIOTS PASS OFFENSE
The Vikings’ secondary slowed down yet another group of wide receivers last week against Green Bay. Since giving up 100+ yards to all three of Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp in the same game, the Vikings have now played seven more times, including matchups against the Eagles, the Saints, the Lions, the Bears, and the Packers. Not one receiver has topped even 81 yards against them. The Vikings have allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the league. Only four teams have allowed fewer passing yards per game.
This creates a very difficult spot for “upside” from Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon, who have dominated looks among Patriots wide receivers across the last two months. Since Edelman returned, target counts between these two have looked like this:
:: Edelman — 9 // 7 // 8 // 10 // 10 // 12 // 5
:: Gordon — 4 // 9 // 7 // 6 // 10 // 12 // 5
Gordon should primarily match up with Xavier Rhodes, who has struggled a bit this season, allowing 37 receptions on 54 passes thrown into his coverage (68.5%), while allowing two touchdowns and picking off only one pass. Gordon’s connection with Tom Brady has not yet matured, but he will be given opportunities to hit this week.
Edelman’s floor is fairly matchup proof — but his primary role in this game will likely be to catch underneath passes and help move the chains, making it difficult for him to reach upside without the help of heavy volume and/or a touchdown.
At tight end for this team, Rob Gronkowski has been removed from the injury report, and he should be a full go this week after seeing seven to eight targets in four of his last five games. Gronk’s 15.8 yards per reception on the year sits above his career average of 15.2, and his 64% catch rate is his third highest in the last six years. His 63.0 receiving yards per game rank as his worst mark since his rookie year in 2010, but it’s not far off his career average of 69.8. All that to say: Gronk’s production has not been too terribly different from what it was in the past, with his two touchdowns on the season making his year look worse than it truly has been. He is not seeing the usage of guys like Kelce, Ertz, and Kittle, but he certainly remains in the conversation. The Vikings have been above average against tight ends this season, but relative to their other strengths, it has been the best way to attack them. Gronk projects for another seven to nine looks this week.
PATRIOTS RUN OFFENSE
The Bears are the only team in the NFL that has been more difficult to run on than the Vikings this year, with Minnesota shaving 18.6% off the league-average yards per carry rate, while allowing the second fewest running back touchdowns in the NFL — and while the Patriots are always growing and adjusting as an offense, this is the type of spot over the years in which this team will put the ball in the hands of Tom Brady and allow him to take over the game. If the Patriots do indeed take this approach, it would become difficult for Sony Michel to matter this week, with his six total receptions on the season leaving him as one of the most yardage-and-touchdown dependent backs in the league. If Michel instead sees the 18 to 24 carries he has notched in four games this season, he’ll have opportunity to produce. Michel has five total touchdowns in those higher-carry games, with no touchdowns in his other four games.
The Patriots changed things up with James White last week, giving him only five targets (his second fewest on the year), but handing him the ball nine times — a season high for games in which Michel was healthy. White’s value has primarily come through the 10 touchdowns he has produced, though his price on all sites has dropped to a point where he is attractive for the eight or more targets he could see. Michel has been healthy for seven games this year, and White has seen eight or more targets in four of those.
Usage in this backfield will get spread out a bit with Rex Burkhead returning from I.R. this week. Burkhead is expected to play limited snaps — but any snaps from a third back are bad news, making Michel and White more difficult to bet on in cash games.
I like Cousins this week as a surprisingly underpriced play on all three sites, in a game in which the Vikings will likely be throwing plenty. Cousins has been up-and-down this year and the Patriots’ defense has done a good job limiting blowup quarterback games — creating a setup that is not devoid of risk; but Cousins’ likeliest scenario provides a solid floor of around 270 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns, with some upside from there. I also like Thielen (no surprise there, as he has gone for 100+ yards in nine of 11 games this year), and I like the upside on Diggs even if his floor is a bit lower than I would love at the price.
It’s not crazy to think that Dalvin Cook will see more like 14 or 15 carries this week (to go with the three to five targets that we can typically depend on him seeing), which could give him a shot to hit for a spiked week; but he’ll need some things to go right (a long play or a rise in workload) to justify a roster spot this week, making him a longer-shot play on DraftKings and FantasyDraft, and putting him simply “in the conversation” against the players priced around him on FanDuel.
While this game should feature points, and the Patriots should find ways to score, it will be difficult to find a player on the Patriots on whom you can feel comfortable betting that both yards and scores will pile up together. Any of Gronk, White, Edelman, Gordon, or Michel (in that order) could post a solid yardage game (with receptions adding to the fantasy outputs of the first four), and any of those five could post a touchdown or two as well. The likeliest outcome is that each of these guys fails to post enough yards/receptions to truly matter at his price, leaving us betting on multi-touchdown games. With that said: none of the first four are likely to destroy your roster without a touchdown, making these guys viable in tourneys even in a difficult matchup. Gronk and White come closest to cash game relevance.