by Scott Benson

The New England Patriots took an utterly convincing step towards the NFL playoffs tonight with a thoroughly dominant 31-7 road win over the upstart Minnesota Vikings.

If the playoffs were seeded today (sorry Bruce) the Patriots would be the AFC’s second seed, behind only the undefeated Indianapolis Colts, and again would possess a coveted first round bye.

The Patriots will return to Gillette Stadium to battle the Colts for the AFC lead at the halfway mark next Sunday night.

Tonight, the Patriots were expertly led by the league’s best quarterback,Tom Brady, who directed a spread offense – often with an empty backfield – and completely controlled the game from the opening gun to the final bell.

Brady finished 29 of 43 for 372 yards and 4 touchdowns in one of his greatest performances as a Patriot. Typically, he spread the ball to ten different receivers. He cut the highly rated Vikings D with long strikes over the top, and bled them to death with short underneath throws that controlled the ball, the clock, and the only-briefly boisterous Metrodome crowd.

As good as Brady was tonight, the Patriots defense may have been better.

They did not allow a point. They harassed veteran Brad Johnson into three interceptions (and Brooks Bollinger into one) and just 185 yards in 33 attempts, and held Chester Taylor to just over two yards a carry. Thanks to their suffocating performance, and their searing physical play, the Vikings were never once a threat.

Mike Vrabel led the D’s tour de force, flying from sideline to sideline for 7 tackles and an interception, and veterans like Rodney Harrison, Rosevelt Colvin, and Junior Seau made the Vikings pay for every measly inch they were able to scratch out.

The new look Vikings took the field with newfound confidence, and left the field a whipped bunch, the difference between them and a legitimate playoff team having been made painfully clear.

The game went south for Minnesota almost immediately, as Brady and the Pats took the opening kickoff and marched 86 yards for a touchdown. The key play was a Doug Gabriel catch and run that went for 45 yards on 3rd and 10 from the New England 10. The former Raider angled across the middle, took a Brady throw in stride, and raced all the way to the Vikings 41.

Just four plays later, Reche Caldwell worked his way free in the right corner of the end zone to grab a perfectly placed Brady toss, and the Patriots were off and running.

Later, after an ill-advised Brady 3rd down prayer had been intercepted by Darren Sharper at the Patriots 45, the Vikings made their only competitive run of the night. Minnesota moved 40 yards with a mix of the run and the short pass, and soon were threatening inside in the Patriots 10 yard line.

The Pats D stiffened (that’s what they do), and on 3rd down and goal from the 5, feeling pressure from the Patriots front (a quiet night on the score sheet, but not in the trenches), Johnson threw an inexplicable pass right into the arms of Harrison, who held on at the goal line to stunt the Vikings best scoring chance of the night.

Despite being in the shadow of their own goal posts, the Patriots went right back to the spread and promptly drove 90 yards for a Stephen Gostkowski field goal and a 10-0 lead. Brady stretched the field here again, htting Ben Watson down the seam for 40 yards, and brought the team into field goal range with a deftly executed 20 yard screen to Laurence Maroney.

Already down two scores, the Vikings went to the air, and again Johnson was picked off, this time by Chad Scott for his first interception as a Patriot. The former Steeler showed good awareness by doubling back on a badly underthrown Johnson ball in Patriots territory.

The Patriots were unable to do anything with that one, and they traded punts with Minnesota. But with four minutes remaining in the half, they went on the march again. It began when Caldwell took a short 3rd down pass and turned the Viking defender inside out before racing past him for a 34 yard gain. Maroney took it from there, breaking a rare running play to the outside for 22 more, all the way to the Minnesota 20. Soon after, Brady hit Caldwell again for another 3rd down conversion (this time on 3rd and 10, and again it was Caldwell running through a defender for the first), which set up a 9 yard Ben Watson touchdown (on a nice crossing route to Brady’s right) as the final seconds of the half ticked away. Brady had led the Pats on a 11 play, 74 yard drive, and for all intents and purposes, had finished off the Vikings.

The Patriots had gained more yards in one half than the Vikings defense had been allowing for an entire game. 30 minutes with a professional outfit and they were dead in the water.

The Vikings had one brief moment of hope early in the third, when Mewelde Moore took a Josh Miller punt and blew through several Patriots missed tackles en route to a 71 yard touchdown. For the first time since the game’s opening minutes, the Minnesota crowd had finally found its tongue.

But only for a second. On the ensuing kickoff, Maroney found a seam and busted off on a 77 sprint before finally being tripped up from behind by Artose Pinner. Three quick Brady completions and the Patriots were back in the end zone again (on a sharp 7 yard grounder gathered up by Troy Brown). The Vikings Moment was just that. A moment.

Game over.

The Patriots added another touchdown to close out the third, as Brady got his fourth TD of the day thanks to an impressive play by Chad Jackson. The rookie took a short Brady toss at the Vikings 10 and was nearly knocked to the ground, but he maintained his balance by keeping his feet moving, essentially crawling on his hands into the end zone.

The Patriots receiving corps, so often the focus of dissection and derision since August, had its finest hour tonight. Caldwell tied Watson for the team lead in receptions with 7, and Gabriel added 5 more. Brown and Jackson each found the end zone. They riddled the Vikings secondary and were open on virtually every play. The game plan to beat Minnesota had been built around them, and they were resolute in their response.

The offensive line, reminded all week about the Vikings unstoppable defensive front, protected Brady as well as they had all season. He was sacked three times, but the former Super Bowl MVP far more frequently enjoyed tranquility as he cycled through his available receivers. The line even opened the occasional hole for the little used Patriots backs (Maroney had his 22 yard dash, Heath Evans went for 35 on a quick hitter, and Corey Dillon added a 15 yard run despite only carrying three times).

The defense added four sacks to its four interceptions. and their 4th quarter assault on backup QB Bollinger (three sacks on his first three plays) was stark evidence of their clear superiority. Tully Banta Cain had two sacks and provided consistent edge pressure all night. Chad Scott was another standout, providing close coverage and steady run support from the corner.

There were a few curious moments in the 4th quarter. With the game safely in the bag, Brady remained in the game, and the Patriots continued to whip it around the lot. A long throw to a streaking Chad Jackson, which might have led to another score, was called back by a penalty. After that, Minnesota sent the house, and Brady took some shots, leading some to woinder what he was doing in there in the first place. What was that about?

A short week, and the number one seed in the AFC, awaits.