(Sports Network) - The New England Patriots have been doing just fine since parting ways with Randy Moss. The Minnesota Vikings, on the other hand, could be about to find out what life will be like without Brett Favre.
Moss returns to Gillette Stadium for the first time since his startling trade from New England to Minnesota earlier this month, but the possibility of Favre's epic streak of 291 consecutive games played coming to an end has become the primary plotline to this Sunday's marquee matchup between the AFC East co-leading Patriots and the struggling Vikings.
Favre's status for this pivotal Week 8 showdown has come into question ever since the legendary quarterback hobbled off the playing surface of his old stomping grounds, Green Bay's Lambeau Field, in an doubly-painful 23-20 defeat to the rival Packers this past Sunday. The veteran ironman suffered a stress fracture to his surgically-repaired left ankle during the contest, an injury that will likely render him a game-time decision for this weekend's clash.
The loss was also hurtful to the Vikings, with the reigning NFC North champions falling to 2-4 on the season and losing ground to Green Bay in the division race.
Favre spent part of the week in a walking boot and did not participate in practice sessions, though the 41-year-old is expected to start as long as he's physically able to go. If that's not the case, backup Tarvaris Jackson would see his first extensive action since a 2008 NFC Wild Card Playoff loss to Philadelphia in his place.
The uncertainty surrounding Favre, who tossed three interceptions and completed only 16-of-29 throws while fighting through his debilitating injury against the Packers, has taken off the spotlight of Moss and his arrival in New England some three-plus weeks after the Patriots shipped the star receiver to Minnesota following a series of disagreements with the organization. The impending free agent had previously publicly disclosed his displeasure with management over its reluctance to extend his contract and revealed he felt underappreciated for his contributions to the team.
New England made the decision to move on from the growing distraction, and Moss' departure hasn't prevented the team from continuing its winning ways. The Patriots have won both their games since the blockbuster trade, rallying for a 23-20 overtime victory over Baltimore in Week 6 and edging slumping San Diego by the same score last Sunday. The perennial playoff contenders enter Sunday's tilt with a 5-1 record, tied with the fellow AFC East member New York Jets and Pittsburgh for the best mark in the league.
The Patriots compensated for Moss' absence by reacquiring wide receiver Deion Branch, a favored target for quarterback Tom Brady during a successful four- year stint in Foxborough from 2001-05, from Seattle just five days after dealing their premier pass-catcher to the Vikings. The move has already paid dividends, with Branch compiling 13 receptions for 137 yards and a touchdown in his two games back with New England.
Moss has scored a touchdown in two of three tests since rejoining Minnesota, where the 33-year-old spent the seven seasons of his prolific 13-year career, but managed just three catches for 30 yards in the Green Bay loss.
The Patriots lead the all-time series with the Vikings, 6-4, including a 31-7 road win when they last played Minnesota during the 2006 season. New England also won the previous matchup, a 24-17 triumph in Foxborough in 2002. The Vikings' most recent win in the series came on the road, a 21-13 victory in 2000.
New England head coach Bill Belichick is 2-3 in his career against Minnesota, including 2-1 since taking the helm of the Patriots in 2000. The Vikings' Brad Childress is 0-1 against both Belichick and the Patriots as a head coach.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
Considering he hasn't missed a start since the tail end of the George H.W. Bush presidency, odds are Favre (1191 passing yards, 7 TD, 10 INT) will be able to gut it out and play on Sunday. The bigger question may be whether he'll perform well. The three-time league MVP's 68.0 passer rating is a career low and the third-worst among NFL regulars this season, while his 10 interceptions are already three more than his entire 2009 total. Fortunately, Minnesota will be able to rely on a strong ground game centered around the considerable talents of Adrian Peterson (684 rushing yards, 5 TD, 17 receptions), who's averaging a league-best 114 rushing yards per game and comes in off a 28-carry, 131-yard effort against Green Bay. The Vikings may be just 25th overall in passing offense (198.5 ypg), but certainly don't lack capable weapons in that department. Moss (21 receptions, 5 TD) is a seven-time Pro Bowl selection and still one of the game's elite deep threats, versatile wideout Percy Harvin (25 receptions, 5 total TD) excels in both open space and as a difference-making return man, and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (16 receptions, 1 TD) had 11 touchdown catches as Favre's go-to guy in the red zone last season. Turnovers have been Minnesota's biggest problem, having given the ball away three times or more in four of the first six games.
The New England defense could present a challenge for Peterson, as the Pats have held their last three opponents under 100 rushing yards and limited San Diego to a mere 38 yards on 19 attempts last week. A sturdy front seven anchored by two-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork (17 tackles) and 2008 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Jerod Mayo (72 tackles, 1 sack) at inside linebacker can clog the lanes effectively, with second-year man Pat Chung (48 tackles, 2 INT) providing additional support from his strong safety spot. Teams have had an easier time throwing on the Patriots, who had trouble mounting a consistent pass rush and are extremely young in the secondary. New England gave up 325 yards through the air to the Chargers' dangerous offense last week and has permitted an alarming 70 percent completion rate for the season, along with an average of 282 passing yards per week (30th overall). Moss and Harvin should have their way with the raw cornerback duo of rookie Devin McCourty (26 tackles, 1 INT, 4 PD) and undrafted free agent Kyle Arrington (24 tackles) unless players such as outside linebacker Tully Banta- Cain (13 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and 2010 second-round draft choice Jermaine Cunningham (14 tackles, 1 sacks) can apply the heat to the limitedly-mobile Favre.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
While the Patriots have underwent extensive changes at the skill positions due to injuries and personnel losses, they continue to possess one of the NFL's most potent offenses. That's in a large part due to the presence of Brady (1362 passing yards, 11 TD, 4 INT), who's putting together another banner season as the driving force of a unit that leads the league in points scored (29.5 ppg) and ranks third in third-down conversion percentage (45.2 pct.). The three-time Super Bowl champion signal-caller has completed over 66 percent of his throws while working with a retooled receiving corps that's been fortified with the obtainment of Branch (26 receptions, 2 TD) and the addition of rookie standout Aaron Hernandez (27 receptions) at tight end. New England still has an All-Pro out of the slot in the sure-handed Wes Welker (37 receptions), though the ace wide receiver hasn't quite shown the same explosion since making a quick comeback from an ACL tear he sustained in the 2009 regular-season finale. Running the football has been an issue lately, with primary ball-carrier BenJarvus Green-Ellis (259 rushing yards, 4 TD) having averaged a meager 2.1 yards per carry over the past two weeks while sharing time with sparkplug Danny Woodhead (165 yards, 9 receptions, 2 total TD), a waiver-wire pickup from the Jets who's begun to make his mark as both a change-of-pace option and a receiver out of the backfield.
Expect Brady to be airing it out against a Minnesota defense that doesn't give up many big plays but can be attacked underneath, as Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers showed in a 295-yard, two-touchdown outing a week ago. The Vikings have been hurt by surprising dearth of a pass rush, as the team has mustered an anemic six sacks thus far despite containing proven pressure-producers in ends Jared Allen (18 tackles, 1 sack) and Ray Edwards (14 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and tackle Kevin Williams (14 tackles, 1 sack). Allen has been a major disappointment to date, with the three-time All-Pro having gotten to the quarterback just once this year after amassing 14 1/2 sacks or more in each of the past three seasons. The secondary was without two key members against the Packers, with physical cornerback Cedric Griffin going down with a season-ending ACL tear in a Week 5 loss to the Jets and strong safety Husain Abdullah (25 tackles) sitting out with a concussion, though he's been cleared to play this week. Williams, along with veteran space-eating tackle Pat Williams (12 tackles) and valued middle linebacker E.J. Henderson (41 tackles, 2 INT), heads up a stout run defense that's yielding an average of 99.2 yards per game (11th overall).
There are few, if any, better fantasy players out there than Peterson, and the workhorse back remains a unquestioned must-start even though he'll be the focus of attention by the Patriots with Minnesota's shaky situation at quarterback. There will be few concerns about Moss' motivation in this game, and a matchup against New England's questionable secondary adds a further boost to his already high value. Harvin's also a solid choice in all formats and an absolute start in leagues that count return yards, but Favre should remain on the bench until he proves to be healthy and over his recent turnover binge. It goes without saying that Brady needs to be in all lineups, with Welker, Branch and Hernandez all worthy of consideration as the main targets in the Patriots' pass attack. Green-Ellis has scored a touchdown in four straight games, but still carries some risk due to inconsistent yardage numbers. Neither defense is recommended with this game having the potential to be a shootout, but New England's Stephen Gostkowski offers plenty of promise as the kicker on the NFL's highest-scoring team.
The Vikings' backs are close to being against the wall, so expect Childress' troops to put forth their best effort in a game they almost need to have. Whether that will be enough is the question. The Patriots can put up points in a variety of ways, and that versatility will be awfully tough for a Minnesota team that's constantly buried itself with mistakes throughout the season. There's little debate that a healthy Brady is a clear advantage over a battered Favre, and the former hasn't lost a home game in which he's started in nearly four full seasons. Although it won't be easy, look for that streak to continue for another week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 27, Vikings 24