Patriots' Tom Brady relies on short passing game against vaunted Vikings from

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FOXBORO -- The Patriots plan in the passing game was clear early on against the Vikings.

Throw it short. Give vaunted Minnesota pass-rushers a few screens to get them thinking. Run it wide to keep them from going downhill snap after snap after snap after snap. Protect the quarterback.

James White was the team's leading receiver with seven catches for 92 yards. Though his long catch-and-run of 42 yards came at the end of the first half when the Vikings were protecting against a Hail Mary, he did damage in the screen game.

Patriots backs combined for 10 catches for 120 yards total.

"A lot of those [Vikings defenders] are good pass rushers and they're trying to get to the quarterback, so it could slow them down or just kind of give the offensive linemen a break versus that aggressive pass rush," White said. "So, I mean, we didn't do as well on every single one of them, but I think they still helped us out in the end."

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Later in the game the Patriots were able to hit Josh Gordon for back-to-back 24-yard gains and a touchdown. They were able to hit Cordarrelle Patterson on a corner route for 29 yards. They got Rob Gronkowski on an over route for 15 yards.

But by and large, against an offense that has relied on the short passing game for large chunks of this season, this game was all about the Patriots doing their best Vikings impression.

Tom Brady finished with another 300-yard performance (24-for-32 for 311), but he attempted only one throw beyond 20 yards. He attempted four that traveled between 10 and 19 yards. Nineteen throws stayed within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and six were thrown short of the line.

On the season, Brady has chucked 50 passes that flew 20 yards or more -- 12 percent of his overall attempts. On Sunday, his one deep throw represented 3 percent of his total.

Brady's mere five attempts of 10 yards or more against the Vikings (16 percent of his targets on the day) were a sharp decrease from his body of work over the course of the season. In 2018, 33 percent of his throws have traveled 10 yards or more.

The drop-off could be explained by the Vikings front, which is among the best in the league when it comes to sacking quarterbacks.

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"I’m not sure," Brady said when asked why he leaned on shorter throws. "But we’ve got to take advantage of all parts of the field. I think that’s going to be the key for us."

If keeping Brady out of harm's way was the plan, it worked. He was hit just once when Harrison Smith came flying off the offensive left edge to help force an errant throw and a pick. (Left tackle Trent Brown later shouldered that as his responsibility.) Maybe the Patriots were focused on keeping Brady's injured knee out of the line of fire.

But with the Vikings corner situation as it was -- starters Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes couldn't play a full workload because of injury -- it was curious as to why the Patriots didn't try to test the Vikings deep more often. Gordon wasn't targeted until there were less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter.

"I just had to be patient," Gordon said. "I think that's just how the flow of the game was going. We all let it play itself out. It was great to just get an opportunity, make a play and the rest of it was just fun . . .

"I didn't really question the game plan, I just went along with it. It seemed to work in our favor, and the coaches, my trust is in the coaches. I think they trust me. So, it worked out for us."
 
It did. The Patriots did enough in the short-area passing game early. They did enough on the ground late (23 carries for 104 as a team after halftime). And they sprinkled in enough intermediate passes to catch the Vikings napping in the secondary.

As Brady said, though, they've got to be able to take advantage of all parts of the field against good defenses moving forward.

Against a stout Vikings front -- one that discourages long drop-back passes because of its rush and play-action strikes because of its stinginess against the run -- the Patriots weren't able to do that consistently. But what they did was enough.

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