FOXBORO, Mass. -- To the New England Patriots' long list of flaws this season, add the lack of a killer instinct.
How else to explain the Patriots having a 21-0 lead late in the first half over the Minnesota Vikings, one of the league's worst defensive teams, then having to shut down Daunte Culpepper & Co. on the final drive to escape with a 24-17 victory?
"We've got to put the nail in the coffin," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "When they're on their heels, you want to keep them on their heels. Maybe we got a little lackadaisical."
Maybe? This is a Vikings (3-8) team that has lost 16 consecutive road games, a two-year streak of futility. This is a Vikings team that was mentally halfway home to Minnesota when Randy Moss fumbled and Richard Seymour recovered for the Patriots at the Vikings 31 with 2:14 left in the first half and the Patriots leading, 21-0.
If the Patriots turn that turnover into a field goal or a touchdown, the game is all but over and the Patriots are resting their regulars in the fourth quarter, a nice little luxury since they play the Lions in Detroit on Thanksgiving.
But the Patriots (6-5) don't seem good enough or motivated enough to make things easy on themselves, and this snippet of sloppy play was an example. After two Kevin Faulk runs for no gain and 5-yard false start penalties against Joe Andruzzi and Daniel Graham, the Patriots found themselves with fourth-and-10 at the Vikings 31 and winds of 20 to 35 mph blowing in their face.
Figuring the wind was too fierce for Adam Vinatieri to try a 49-yard field goal and that a punt would do little to improve his team's field position, Patriots coach Bill Belichick opted to go for it.
Brady was sacked for an 8-yard loss, giving the Vikings first down on their own 39.
"That was a real bad series," Belichick said.
Five plays and 61 yards later, the Vikings managed a good one. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound Culpepper, whose impromptu runs are more effective than his scripted throws, ran 16 and 15 yards on the drive's first two plays, then got the score with a six-yard TD pass to D'Wayne Bates that cut the Patriots' lead to 21-7 at halftime. Suddenly, the Vikings began to get the wacky idea that maybe they could win this game.
They didn't. But by going to a no-huddle offense that made it hard for the Patriots to get their preferred personnel on the field, the Vikings made it interesting. Gary Anderson's 38-yard field goal on the third play of the fourth quarter cutting the Patriots lead to 21-17.
It was here that the Patriots offense, so effective in the first half, awakened. Brady burned one of the league's worst pass defenses on back-to-back plays with screens perfectly set up to either side of the field. A screen to Antowain Smith gained 26 yards, a screen to Marc Edwards gained 27 to the Vikings 10. Then things bogged down, and Vinatieri, the wind at his back in the fourth quarter, kicked a 31-yard field goal to make it 24-17 with 11:13 left.
Anderson, the wind in his face, missed a 41-yard attempt wide left on the Vikings' next possession, and Culpepper couldn't get the Vikings past the Patriots 45 on the final two drives. None of his last four passes were close to being caught, except for one, which Patriots strong safety Victor Green dropped.
"Obviously, we're not proud of the way we let them come back in the game," Patriots strong safety Lawyer Milloy said. "But even though they were coming back, I never felt like we were going to lose the game."
That was a rare feeling for these Patriots. Entering Sunday's game, they had trailed by 14 or more points in the third quarter of five of their last six games. The pattern: fall behind, abandon the run in the second half and put it on Brady's shoulders to throw them to victory. Only against the Bears were they able to make that long shot formula work.
This time, they didn't have to. This time, Brady (21 of 34 for 239 yards, 3TDs, 0 INT), drove them for touchdowns on their first three possessions, the third one set up by Culpepper's fumble that Green recovered on the Vikings 29.
"It felt funny," Patriots center Damien Woody said. "You jump out so fast."
Then they foundered. Since September, their 38-7 rout of the Bills in Buffalo on Nov. 3 is the only game in which the Patriots played four quarters of quality football Their record (6-5) is identical to what it was last season, but nothing else is. Smith finished with 18 carries for 58 yards, an average of 3.2 yards. Factor out his long run, a 16-yard gain, and he averaged 2.5 yards. That's hardly championship stuff.
"When you get up 21 points," said Patriots guard Mike Compton, "you should go for the proverbial jugular vein. You try to put teams away, and we didn't do that."
Minnesota 0 7 7 3 -- 17
New England 7 14 0 3 -- 24
NE--Fauria 9 pass from Brady (Vinatieri kick), 3:24.
NE--Fauria 1 pass from Brady (Vinatieri kick), 12:30.
NE--T.Brown 5 pass from Brady (Vinatieri kick), 8:02.
Min--Bates 6 pass from Culpepper (Anderson kick), :19.
Min--Campbell 7 pass from Culpepper (Anderson kick), 4:45.
Min--FG Anderson 38, 14:42.
NE--FG Vinatieri 34, 11:09.
First downs 26 20
Rushes-yards 25-153 33-80
Passing 264 219
Punt Returns 2-9 2-0
Kickoff Returns 5-107 4-80
Comp-Att-Int 24-49-0 21-34-0
Sacked-Yards Lost 4-8 2-20
Punts 2-27.5 5-32.6
Fumbles-Lost 4-3 3-0
Penalties-Yards 8-74 5-25
Time of Possession 28:21 31:39
RUSHING--Minnesota, Culpepper 5-59, Bennett 14-55, M.Williams 6-39. New England, A.Smith 18-58, Edwards 5-15, Brady 6-4, Faulk 4-3.
PASSING--Minnesota, Culpepper 24-49-0-272. New England, Brady 21-34-0-239.
RECEIVING--Minnesota, Moss 8-92, Campbell 6-63, Chamberlain 3-38, Bates 3-29, Kleinsasser 2-31, M.Williams 1-11, Bennett 1-8. New England, Patten 5-62, Brown 4-33, Edwards 3-43, Faulk 3-16, A.Smith 2-38, Fauria 2-10, Branch 1-20, Graham 1-17.
MISSED FIELD GOALS--Minnesota, Anderson 43 (BK), 41 (WL).
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