5 Things to Watch: Vikings vs. Patriots

The Patriots have won 11 straight games against the NFC North and own the league's best record in September (23-9) since 2004. They'll venture into Minneapolis to take on Matt Asiata and the Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday.

Ed Zurga/Ed Zurga/Associated Press

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. –€“ After the off-field news of the past two days, the Minnesota Vikings will have to focus their attention on the field and the New England Patriots.

Minnesota was dealt a blow with the news Adrian Peterson was charged with injury to a child in Texas and the six-time Pro Bowl running back won’t be active for the Vikings on Sunday.

Without Peterson, his teammates will face the standard-bearer for NFL excellence in New England, the league’s most consistent winning team over the past decade. The Patriots have won 11 straight games against the NFC North and own the league’s best record in September (23-9) since 2004.

Here are five things to watch for the Vikings on the field:

1. Peterson’s replacements

Losing the 2012 NFL MVP is no small matter. While the rest of the league has gravitated toward passing first, Minnesota has stayed true to the run and Peterson, the league’s second-leading active rusher. In last week’s regular-season opener, Peterson was held to 75 yards rushing, but it came on 21 carries, a good workload.

Matt Asiata likely steps in as the starter for Peterson, and the 234-pounder will likely handle the early downs and goal-line work for the Vikings. Asiata filled in as the main ball carrier twice last year and finished one game with three touchdowns and the other with 115 yards rushing on 14 carries. He had two carries for 10 yards and one catch for five yards in last week’s win. Asiata had 24 carries for 80 yards in the preseason as Peterson didn’t play.

Asiata is sure to split time with rookie Jerick McKinnon, a third-round draft pick. At 5-foot-9 and 208 pounds, McKinnon is smaller but quicker than Asiata. McKinnon likely would be involved more on passing downs and also showed some good running ability in the preseason as he makes the transition from college option quarterback. McKinnon only had one carry for one yard last week. He had 22 carries for 108 yards in the preseason.

There might be running room against the Patriots. New England allowed 191 rushing yards in a loss at Miami last week. Dolphins running back Knowshon Moreno had 24 carries for 134 yards and Miami ran for 5 yards per carry as a team.

2. Building a home-field advantage

Minnesota hosts New England at TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus, the first regular-season game of a two-year stay for the Vikings while the team’s new stadium is built. Minnesota won each of the two preseason games at TCF Bank Stadium this year.

The Vikings will look to establish some type of home-field advantage as the team’s fans leave the indoor comforts of the Metrodome to watch outside at TCF Bank Stadium. The Metrodome was known for its loud atmosphere. Can the fans bring some of the same intensity to TCF Bank Stadium?

For the first regular-season game, conditions will still be mild. Temperatures are expected to be in the 60s and the forecast calls for clear skies. Minnesota will have no complaints about the weather for Game 1.

3. Filling the shoes

Asiata and McKinnon might take Peterson’s role in the backfield, but perhaps more of the offensive responsibility will fall on Cordarrelle Patterson. Peterson touched the ball more last week, but Patterson was the offensive star in the Vikings’ 34-6 win with a 67-yard touchdown run. Patterson ran three times for 102 yards last week and possibly could see a few more carries this time around without Peterson.

Patterson has begun to take more of the offensive load and he played 78 percent of the offensive snaps last week. He was second on the team (behind Greg Jennings) with five targets in the passing game, going for three receptions and 26 yards. Minnesota’s offense will need more from Patterson while Peterson is out.

Patterson’s versatility should help against New England, which added cornerback Darrelle Revis in the offseason. Jennings might even see more of Revis on Sunday. Patterson’s versatility and being moved around by the Vikings could help him escape a bit of Revis’ attention.

4. Stopping Gronk

Offensively, the Patriots feature two distinct matchup troubles in running back Shane Vereen and tight end Rob Gronkowski. Vereen isn’t a traditional, workhorse running back. But he’s athletic and elusive and is a good receiver out of the backfield. Vereen is used a lot on screens to take advantage of defenses.

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Gronkowski is one of the toughest matchups in the entire league at 6-6, 265 pounds with the ability to stretch the field. In his fifth NFL season, Gronkowski has played 51 games and scored 44 touchdowns. He’s averaged 14.3 yards per catch on 230 career receptions.

Minnesota’s linebackers and safeties will have to slow Vereen and Gronkowski. But maybe the Vikings have the athletic defender able to keep up with Gronkowski. Rookie linebacker Anthony Barr is 6-5, 255 pounds and just as fast as Gronkowski. Barr came to the NFL known for his pass-rushing ability, but he was used more in coverage last week and impressed coaches with the way he handled the assignments.

5. Zimmer, the defense and the Patriots

Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer beat New England last year as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator but he isn’t taking too much from last year to this year. Zimmer has said repeatedly that this year is different with a new team, and Gronkowski didn’t play in last year’s game. All are true, but Zimmer might be downplaying his influence.

The Vikings defense looked much different in last week’s game in harassing the St. Louis Rams’ quarterbacks. One of the keys to stopping the Patriots is doing the same to New England quarterback Tom Brady. Zimmer has done it in the past and might be able to use some of the same script.

Adding to the possibility is Miami holding Brady down last week. Brady had a 69.7 quarterback rating and the league’s lowest completion rate (51.8 percent) in Week 1. Coincidentally, the Dolphins defensive coordinator is Kevin Coyle, who worked under Zimmer in Cincinnati and runs a similar defense.

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