MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Tom Brady beat Minnesota’s relentless rushing defense by simply throwing over it, over and over again.

Brad Johnson? He was no match for New England’s unflappable quarterback, making a handful of uncharacteristic mistakes.

Brady passed for 372 yards and threw touchdowns to four different receivers, quieting another loud crowd and leading the Patriots past the Vikings 31-7 on Monday night.

Johnson, intercepted three times, was 20-of-33 for 185 yards. Minnesota’s only score was a 71-yard punt return by Mewelde Moore, but New England rookie Laurence Maroney – playing in the stadium where he became a college star – answered that with a 74-yard kickoff return.

The Patriots (6-1), who have won six straight on the road, host Indianapolis (7-0) on Sunday.

The Vikings (4-3) proved they weren’t in their opponent’s class just yet. Playing their first Monday night home game in five years, they were consistently outschemed and outworked.

Brady hasn’t lost in 10 NFL games indoors, but he’s usually pretty good wherever he plays. Save for an up-for-grabs pass up the sideline that Darren Sharper snagged for a one-handed interception as he fell down in the first quarter, Brady was brilliant.

The last time he was here, the three-time Super Bowl champion was leading Michigan to a win over the University of Minnesota in 1998. And, boy, it sure looked like Brady was facing those defenseless Gophers again – not a Vikings team that had held every prior opponent to 19 points or less and entered the game ranked seventh in the league in total yards allowed.

First-year defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin has helped create a dominant unit fueled by a fierce front four, but his charges were embarrassed on each of New England’s three first-half scoring drives.

Corey Dillon was stuffed for an 8-yard loss on the first possession, allowing Brady to account for 94 yards through the air and finish a frighteningly easy march with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Reche Caldwell.

The Patriots drove 93 yards in eight plays to get a 23-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski in the second quarter. And just before halftime, they moved 74 yards in 11 plays to take a 17-0 lead on a 9-yard scoring toss to tight end Ben Watson.

Dillon and Maroney came into the game, combined, with nearly 700 yards rushing, but their impact was minimal except for Maroney’s momentous kickoff return.

No, it was all Brady in this one, slinging his usual darts all over the field to 10 different receivers. He started the game in the shotgun, with an empty backfield, and lined up in that five-wide set several times throughout the first half. Ten of New England’s first 11 plays were passes.

Minnesota just couldn’t keep up.

Johnson faced far more pressure than Brady, and he made two off-target throws before halftime that cost his team big time. The first one came on third-and-goal at the Patriots’ 5, a soft toss to Moore – who complained he was held – that wound up in Rodney Harrison’s hands. Johnson was also picked off by Chad Scott when he went deep for Troy Williamson.

Coach Brad Childress has built the Vikings into a run-first, low-risk, scrappy outfit that relies on a sound defense and a take-what-it-can-get offense to succeed. One problem with that is they’re not made for big rallies.

Their largest deficit to date was 17-3 against Detroit, and they overcame that with a 23-point fourth quarter three weeks ago. But after Troy Brown’s 7-yard touchdown catch, set up by Maroney’s return, Minnesota was down 24-7. On the next possession, Williamson dropped a should-be touchdown on a long pass up the sideline when he failed to properly adjust to the ball as it arrived.

The Vikings, then, were out of opportunities. After a career-best 169 yards last week at Seattle, Chester Taylor was bottled up – gaining only 22 yards on 10 carries. He suffered a shoulder stinger in the third quarter and didn’t return.

Brady gave rookie Chad Jackson his chance to score late in the third, a 10-yard completion that Jackson deftly converted by virtually crawling into the end zone to keep from falling down.

Mike Vrabel intercepted Johnson on the next possession, and when Minnesota had the ball again backup Brooks Bollinger was behind center. New England then provided the punctuation to a near-perfect night, forcing a three-and-out with three straight sacks.

AP-ES-10-30-06 2348EST

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