The Minnesota Vikings took a big step toward taking control of their playoff destiny a week ago, but there is little margin for error with a critical coast-to-coast road trip awaiting them.
Sitting in second place in the NFC North and holding down the No. 5 seed in their conference, the Vikings (6-4-1) face a daunting challenge when they visit the New England Patriots on Sunday.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins is in his first season with Minnesota after signing a three-year, $84 million contract in the offseason, but he has a keen sense of history as he prepares to square off against Tom Brady and the Patriots for the second time in his career.
"I don't even know where to begin with what you can learn from him," Cousins said of Brady. "He won his first Super Bowl, I was in seventh grade. So, I've been watching him for a long time. Obviously, the ultimate competitor. This game matters to him so much and you see it in the way he conducts his business. ... He's always been great in crunch time and he's a winner.
"I think he's really set the bar for all of us who come after him, and really everybody who came before as well. They call him the 'GOAT' for a reason."
The GOAT moniker -- Greatest Of All Time -- often is applied to the 41-year-old Brady, a three-time NFL Most Valuable Player and the winner of five Super Bowl championships. And while this may not be Brady's finest season, he still has New England (8-3) atop the AFC East and in contention for the No. 1 overall seed in the conference.
"You've got to give respect where respect's due," Minnesota defensive end Everson Griffen said. "He's the GOAT. Five Super Bowl rings, they're in the playoffs every year and he's a large part in the team winning. He's the GOAT. We've got to go out there and play our best game to beat one of the best."
Minnesota advanced to the NFC Championship Game last season behind a defense that surrendered a league-low 15.8 points per game and was ranked No. 1 in fewest yards allowed. The unit hasn't been as suffocating this year, but the Vikings limited Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers to a season-worst 198 yards in last week's 24-17 win.
"This has really been an impressive team to watch," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of the Vikings. "Looks like to me they're even better than they were last year. Really well-coached defensively, as good as we'll face all year."
Minnesota's defense is allowing 276.6 yards since Week 4 and sacked Rodgers four times last weekend. The goal this week is to apply as much pressure as possible on Brady, although Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer acknowledges that is easier said than done.
"They do a good job of getting in no-backs and spreading the ball around, getting the ball out quick," Zimmer said of the Patriots. "Protection-wise, they change up on you quite a bit so they can get extra hands on your pass rushers. The play-action quite honestly helps them quite a bit because they sell the run so well with it. If it was just a straight passing game every snap, I think we'd have a good opportunity."
Defensively, New England must find a way to slow down Cousins and Minnesota's high-powered passing attack. Cousins is averaging 299.0 yards passing with 22 touchdowns versus seven interceptions and has an outstanding wide receiver tandem in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
Both players had eight receptions and a touchdown in the win over Green Bay. Thielen has nearly been unstoppable this season, leading the NFL with 93 catches and ranking second with 1,138 yards. He has eight touchdown catches and last week marked his ninth 100-yard game of the season.
"He does everything well," said Belichick. "He's got good size. He can get to a lot of balls with his length. He has very good hands. He's quick for a taller player and so his length and the radius that he can catch the ball in is good and he has the hands to extend and catch it, but for a taller guy he's quick and he's able to create separation. ... He's a little different than Diggs but they complement each other well."