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Unpretty Patriots slog their way through win over Vikings

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Remember when the New England Patriots traded for Josh Gordon?

Better question: Do the Patriots?

They were so committed to their plan to get the ball out of Tom Brady's hands quickly to negate the Minnesota Vikings' pass rush that, in the landslide of screens, Gordon was a missing man for nearly three quarters of football, even though one of the Vikings' starting cornerbacks was injured early in the game and never returned and the other alternated series as he dealt with a balky hamstring. That was long enough for the Patriots offense to sputter -- at one point, the Vikings so effectively sniffed out a screen that Brady simply gave up on the play and threw the ball into the turf on third down -- and the Vikings to stick around.

And then, with the score tied late in the third quarter, Brady threw one of those short passes to Gordon, he broke a tackle, ran for a 24-yard gain and the Patriots finally shook off their somnolence. There was a pass over the middle to Rob Gronkowski, one of only three receptions on the day for him, and a run by James White and then a 24-yard touchdown pass to Gordon.

The complexion of the game had changed completely and the Patriots were on their way to a 24-10 victory over the Vikings.

According to Next Gen Stats, Brady averaged just 3.4 air yards per attempt, his lowest in a game since 2016 and the fourth lowest of any quarterback this season and well below his previous low of 5.8 air yards per attempt in a game against the Rams in 2016.

"I didn't really question the game plan," Gordon said. "I just went along with it. It seemed to work in our favor."

Eventually, yes. But neither team is what we expected when the season began. For frantic Patriots fans who miss their quick strikes and their juggernaut, the Vikings can provide some reassuring context. They were in the NFC Championship game last season, made the big move to get the franchise quarterback they thought they lacked, gave him a record-breaking contract. For their efforts, they are currently on the outside looking in at the NFC playoff field, seventh in a six-team field, and they were inexplicably flat in a measuring stick game with a crucial game at Seattle next week. One more reality check, New England: Check out the headlines from Green Bay on Sunday night.

Still, this slog is certainly not the usual look for the Patriots, especially not by the time December rolls around. This is when they want to be rounding into form, having established an identity that will take them well into the playoffs. On the plus side, their offense is balanced. Seven players combined to rush for 160 yards -- including Brady's five yards, which put him at 1,000 rushing yards for his career. He passed for 311, to nine different receivers. But the offense seems to have slipped a little out of gear.

Gronkowski is clearly not himself -- after that reception over the middle late in the third quarter, he came up limping, and it is telling that his once-constant double teams are no longer constant, a signal that opponents no longer fear him on every play. Julian Edelman, who is usually the engine of the offense, caught just three passes for 25 yards. It was his fewest receptions and receiving yards in a game since 2016. Explosive plays are sporadic at best.

A particularly poor game against the Titans ignited a flurry of "Is Brady declining?" conversations. Penalties are stunting and stalling drives -- there have been 11 of them in the last two weeks, which is the first thing Belichick noted when asked what the Patriots have to do to get better on offense.

The Patriots are winning, but everything is a grind and the failure to get Gordon involved until the end of the third quarter is just an example of the struggle. The virtues of complementary football can be extolled after the Patriots held the Vikings to 278 yards -- Minnesota's second fewest yards compiled this season -- and have allowed 9.6 fewer points per game in the last five games. But it's fair to wonder if this is as good as the Patriots can hope to be, and if that will be enough in the playoffs, particularly if the Patriots do not leapfrog Kansas City and hold off the Steelers and Texans to enjoy their usual home field advantage throughout the postseason.

Brady offered no insight into why it took so long for Gordon to get involved in the game.

"I'm not sure," he said. "It's just sometimes it goes to different guys, and sometimes more Julian, Josh, a lot of guys to get the ball to, so it's just whoever's open usually gets it. I'm trying to find the most open guy."

Was it the desire to hold at bay the Vikings' defensive front that led the Patriots to focus so much energy on the shorter passing game.

"I'm not sure," Brady said. "But we've got to take advantage of all parts of the field. I think that's going to be the key for us."

The Patriots' problems are of the NFL's first-world variety, of course, and they are noteworthy in large part because of the impossibly high bar the Patriots have set in the last 18 seasons. There have been other slogs in their championship runs. While other teams crumble around them, it's certainly not time to panic in New England, but it is time to wonder why this season seems so much harder here when scoring in the NFL has never been easier.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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