MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – The New England Patriots are still the standard in this league that all others strive for, a model of salary cap management, successful drafts and on-field consistency this decade that hasn’t been matched.

Teams are sure trying, though.

Take the Minnesota Vikings, who no longer introduce individual starters before their home games, preferring instead to run out together. The Patriots received plenty of publicity for that team-first, no-star concept while they were winning Super Bowls after the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons.

Minnesota had several high-profile players in recent years, and Daunte Culpepper, Randy Moss and everyone else left without a ring. The Vikings spent a significant amount of cash in free agency in the offseason to build their roster for new coach Brad Childress, but Chester Taylor was the only addition who plays a glamour position – and he signed for far less money than many of his running back peers.

“It’s an approach that I think we’re buying into,” said linebacker Ben Leber, who left San Diego to join Minnesota this year. “I think everybody knew at the beginning of the season what we were. We’ve heard the people talking, ‘You guys don’t have a big-name guy,’ and all that. And we were OK with that. … We knew it was just a matter of time before we could be successful, too.”

The Vikings (4-2) host the Patriots (5-1) in their first Monday night home game since 2001. It will be a big test for both teams, but probably more for Minnesota, which has been making progress toward establishment of the disciplined, run-first, defense-fueled team that Childress is after.

“They’re really impressive,” New England coach Bill Belichick said during a gushing, 300-plus-word Vikings analysis that kicked off his news conference Wednesday.

The Patriots, who have won five straight on the road and outscored opponents 156-64 in those contests, are still built around a strong defense and an unflappable quarterback in Tom Brady, who sports a 9-0 career record when playing inside. New England, for that matter, has won nine straight dome games dating to Thanksgiving Day in 2000 that brought a defeat at Detroit.

This interconference matchup has been held at the Metrodome only once over the last 18 seasons, won by Minnesota 23-18 in 1997. The last time they played was in 2002, when the Patriots won 24-17 at home, so despite the prevalence of scouting reports and video, it’s one of those situations where neither team is very familiar with the other.

The Vikings have two players, tight end Jermaine Wiggins and receiver/kick returner Bethel Johnson, with insider knowledge of New England. Wiggins caught 10 passes for the Patriots in their memorable playoff victory over Oakland in January 2002 on the way to their first championship. Johnson, a second-round draft pick in 2003 who never panned out, asked to be traded and was plucked off waivers two weeks ago by Minnesota after being released earlier by New Orleans.

But even for foes who don’t face them very often, the Patriots are still the NFL’s shining example of how to win it all in more than one year.

“New England has a lot of superstars, but you don’t know about it because they always talk team – and in the end you get the reward individually after you win the whole thing,” quarterback Brad Johnson said. “Pro Bowls don’t mean much. That’s a popularity deal, if you want to know the truth. Where you get your true success is by winning it all, and they’ve proven it. And with some superstars that didn’t get credit individually until it’s over.”

It’s not as if the Patriots shy away from praising their own, though. In fact, they’ll sneer at the suggestion they’re short on standouts.

“You just keep underestimating us, and it’s going to keep feeding us before we get hungrier and hungrier,” safety Rodney Harrison said after listing the teammates who have been to Pro Bowls. “If you want to say we’re a bunch of average players or old guys that just work hard or just overachieve, then it’s all good. We’ll just keep going out there doing what we do, and we’ll see what happens.”

Even Belichick balked.

“I don’t really know where all of that is coming from,” he said. “I never said that. We just tried to put together a good football team. … You can call them whatever you want to call them, but I think they’re pretty good football players.”

That includes Corey Dillon and rookie Laurence Maroney, who have rushed for a combined 689 yards. They’re up against a defense that has risen to the league’s top ranking in yards rushing allowed with a mere 70.8 per game.

“That’s what great defenses do,” Leber said. “Really, it’s just been all the way down to fundamentals. The front four has been getting after it. … We’re playing good ball right now, and I just hope we can keep it running.”


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