When asked about Sunday’s win over the Arizona Cardinals, Cam Newton said he told the team in the locker room, “I’d rather have an ugly win than a pretty loss.”
And boy, was this game an ugly win.
The struggles on offense were blaringly obvious in this game, after a successful passing game last week against Houston. With neither the passing nor running game really established this week, the offense needed all the help they could get to keep them in the game.
As per usual for the past handful of seasons, the defense and special teams picked up the slack to help get another win for New England. With some unexpected names contributing this week, and some of the same guys continuing to struggle, it was certainly an ugly win but a much needed win for this team.
This was another game this season that ended in a win, but certainly didn’t appear to end up that way for the majority of the day. As another game the Patriots were considered the underdogs coming in, the defense and special teams did a phenomenal job in not letting the Cardinals get away with a massive victory.
The defense was tested three weeks in a row with mobile quarterbacks and were successful in limiting Lamar Jackson a few weeks ago and Kyler Murray on Sunday. Learning from their big mistakes against Deshaun Watson last week, the defense was able to bring the pressure needed to eliminate chances for Murray to run.
Not only did this defense slow Murray down, but they also impacted his passing ability. Kyler ended the day with his 2nd lowest passing yards of the season with only 170 yards and the 2nd lowest passer rating of his career.
On top of a great day by the defense, the special teams displayed their dominance once again with great returns and ball placement for the Cardinals throughout the game.
After missing last week’s game due to a shoulder injury, Adam Butler had himself a day. The best game of his career, actually.
The game started slow on both sides of the ball for the Patriots. Fortunately for the defense, Butler was a big contributing factor to their success in the latter half of the game. Ending the day with 5 total tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, a sack and 3 hits on Kyler Murray is quite the successful day for the defensive tackle. However, his most impressive contribution was his pass deflection which led to an interception by Adrian Phillips in the 3rd quarter.
The score was tied at the point of his pivotal deflection, and with Phillips’ making it an interception at Arizona’s 31-yard-line, this gave the Patriots a chance to take their first lead in the game. And 6 plays later, they did just that with a touchdown.
With the defense continuing to improve bringing pressure to opposing quarterbacks, Butler’s impressive performance on Sunday helped keep the Pats in the game.
As this week 12 game was approaching, it was difficult to not look forward to another great game of Stephon Gilmore covering DeAndre Hopkins all day. With Hopkins on the path for another incredible season, all eyes were on the reigning DPOY on Sunday, hoping to see him win the battle once again.
Gilmore has been historically great against Hopkins in his career, and he added yet another impressive game to his resume this week. Limiting Hopkins to only 3 receptions on 4 targets for 25 yards, Gilmore once again shut down the best receiver on the opponent’s team.
In the 4 games in which he has covered the receiver, Gilmore has only allowed 9 catches on 16 targets for 99 yards and 0 touchdowns. Also, in that span, he’s had 1 interception and 2 pass break-ups, while allowing a mere 48.70 QB passer rating.
Since his return from injury just last week, Gilmore appears to be right back to his usual self. Dominating in the secondary and shutting down top receivers in the game is never easy, but he sure makes it look like it.
Nick Folk and Jake Bailey
The special teams this season have been generally on point, as per usual for a Bill Belichick led Patriots team. But, after a shaky start of the season for Nick Folk, he has been one of the most consistent guys on the team over the last several weeks.
New England has dealt with struggling kickers over the last couple of seasons, after having the (almost) always reliable Stephen Gostkowski for 14 seasons. But those struggles seem to be behind them now as Folk has been steady with both field goals and extra points since the first month of the season. Having not missed a field goal since week 2 at Seattle, and not missing an extra point since week 3 against Las Vegas, Folk is a guy the Patriots can count on and celebrate.
And celebrate they did on Sunday, as Folk was able to knock through a 50-yard field goal in the final seconds of the game to give the Patriots another win.
Jake Bailey has also been very dependable this season, and he showed that once again against the Cardinals. Kickers are generally not spoken about much amongst the media nor fans unless they have a giant mess up or an out-of-this-world game saving kick. But Bailey deserves more credit than he is given.
New England special teams have been a bright spot for the team for many years now, and it appears that won’t be changing any time soon. Bailey has shown time and time again he has a strong leg and can put the opposing team deep in their own territory.
In the game on Sunday, he had 3 punts for 169 yards, averaging 56.3 yards-per-punt. He had just one end up as a touchback, only his 2nd on the season. And another landing inside the 20-yard-line, which he’s been most successful at this season. With nearly 56% of his punts landing inside the 20, Bailey continues to help set the defense up for success as they line-up deep on the opponents’ side of the field.
With Rex Burkhead out for the season with a knee injury he sustained in last week’s game, it was expected most of his carries would be given to James White the rest of the way. And with his workload on Sunday, it appears the team is doing just that.
This season has been a down year for White, unexpectedly so but also understandably. Other than the Patriots having a deep roster in the backfield, White missed a few games after tragedy struck his family in September when his father passed away in a car accident.
As the opportunity to contribute more each week appears to be happening now, White took over the RB2 spot in Burkhead’s absence. Having 5 carries for 18 yards is not generally the production we’re used to from him, but White was able to score 2 rushing touchdowns on Sunday; one of which came on 4th down and 2.
With the season continuing, James White will likely be more incorporated in the game plans each week. As the other dynamic back on the team, his presence is important to the team and his reliability is always apparent.
Donte Moncrief – Elevated from the practice squad for the second week in a row, Donte Moncrief made a splash with his kick returns on Sunday. Having not done any returns since his rookie season, Moncrief was in a bit of unfamiliar territory but had a surprisingly great day. He ended the game with 2 returns for 75 yards, most notably his 53-yard-return which gave a momentum boost to a sleepy Patriots team in the 1st quarter. Because of his return, this gave the team great field position, leading to the Patriots’ first touchdown.
Akeem Spence – Another player elevated from the practice squad this week, Akeem Spence made his Patriots debut with some big plays. Other than his 4 tackles on the day, Spence was part of the big defensive stop at the goal line on 4th and goal right before halftime. This was a huge stop for the defense, as it kept the Patriots within 3 points of Arizona before they received the 2nd half kickoff.
Defensive Pressure – As the Patriots defense continues to improve at rushing the passer, they were successful once again this week against another mobile quarterback in Kyler Murray. Applying the pressure and blitzing Murray on 35% of his drop-backs, they limited the QB to his 3rd fewest carries and rushing yards this season, with only 5 carries for 31 yards. Not only did they limit his scrambling, Murray was also only 6 for 11 on passes while blitzed with an interception and a sack.
This season has been unique in many ways. Despite the obvious reasons, it’s been unusual with how easy it’s been to discuss all the not-so-good parts of games. As the weeks go on and the struggles of the year remain, the time to improve is becoming less and less. But as inconsistent as this team has been, surprisingly they have not been eliminated from playoff contention (yet).
Coming into the season, there wasn’t much optimism that this team, with this roster could do much of anything to be successful whatsoever. Even though their playoffs chances are more than likely not happening, there is a lot of potential on this team to succeed the rest of the way.
But there are a few players who have continued to struggle this year and Sunday was no different.
The anticipation of when we will see N’Keal Harry have a breakout game continued this week, as the receiver had another lackluster game. Ending the game with no catches on 3 targets, and 1 carry for -2 yards, Harry struggled to make an impact on Sunday.
A hot topic amongst the Boston media and fans has been about Harry being a “bust” and a “waste of a first round pick” in the draft. To some extent, the disappointment is not unwarranted. But overall, it is not including all that he has gone through since entering the league last year.
It’s not unfair to remember that just this season alone, Harry missed two games due to a concussion. It’s also not unfair to point out the totality of struggles this offense as a whole has had this season.
Harry is a not a bust. He was not a wasted pick in the first round. You can watch his last season in college and know that. But with the Patriots team being a run first offense this year, there aren’t always opportunities for wide receivers to contribute or have big games.
Harry hasn’t had big contributions in the passing game thus far, and there are more questions than answers as to why that is. Will we see him incorporated more in upcoming games? We’ve seen glimpses of what he is capable of in the game against the Seahawks week 2 and even last week in Houston. His pro career so far hasn’t been ideal, but it’s difficult to give up on the young player just yet.
It’s not particularly enjoyable to have the quarterback on the “bad” performance side of the game, but it’s difficult to not include him this week as well. The Patriots team of 2020 has been a consistently inconsistent team and Cam Newton has led the way in that regard.
As the team continues to find their identity, the lack of reliability from Newton is a bit worrisome. However, it can also be confusing with how this team wants to use him in this offense. Of course, game planning changes week to week depending on the opponent, but the Patriots cannot seem to figure out in what way they feel Cam is the most productive.
Last week against the Texans, Newton was 26 of 40 on passes for 365 yards. (yes, 50+ of those came on a last second hail Mary pass to Ryan Izzo, but still) Yet this week, he was only 9 of 18 on passes for 84 yards. Can Josh McDaniels not figure out a happy medium? One week is pass heavy, the next Cam is barely passing at all, regardless of if it appears to be more successful in game.
Ball security has also been an issue for Newton this season. The 4-game streak of no interceptions or fumbles ended on Sunday as he threw 2 interceptions, one coming on just the third play of the opening drive.
There is also the glaring negative of game winning drives this season. In 4 games this year, the Patriots lost by only 1 score or less, having just 1 game winning drive coming from this game on Sunday. Knowing that this team could possibly have 4 more wins this year is difficult to swallow, especially after having a quarterback for 20 years that is known for game-winning drives. But mistakes are meant to be learned from and hopefully Cam will get better at putting the team in a position to win.
The Patriots came into Sunday’s game as the least penalized team in the league with only 36 penalties on the season. However, the last two weeks have resulted in 13 flags totaling 97 yards for the team, often times negatively impacting success on both sides of the ball.
Although not all the penalties seemed fair and just, there were a few called that negated some great plays.
Anfernee Jennings – After a quick 3 & out by the Cardinals, Gunner Olszewski returned the punt for 82 yards and a touchdown, giving the Patriots their first lead of the game. But the penalty flag was thrown and Anfernee Jennings was called for an illegal blindside block, nullifying Olszewski’s score.
Jason McCourty – In the 4th quarter, on a 4th & 4 play, Kyler Murray’s pass was incomplete, resulting in a turnover on downs. But Jason McCourty was called for defensive holding, giving the Cardinals 4 more downs to score.
Stephon Gilmore – On this same drive, just 4 plays later, Stephon Gilmore was also flagged for defensive holding, after yet another incompletion by Murray.
There was also a 12 men on the field penalty called on the defense, which is always a careless and avoidable flag. But that didn’t affect the game as much as the others throughout the game. As the least penalized team in the league, there’s hope the trend of the last two weeks will not continue as the season goes on. With more flags and yards being taken away or given to the opponents, it leaves little room to be successful for the team in its entirety.
Not every win is going to be a complete domination. We’ve seen that plenty this year with this Patriots team. But you have to take a win when you get one in this league, as we know it’s not easy to win in the NFL.
There are plenty of things this team needs to continue to improve and work on. But there is also a lot of good things happening that mustn’t be overlooked. The team isn’t perfect by any means and maybe you’re disappointed with how the season is going. You’re not wrong in feeling that way. But embrace the wins and the positives when presented to you. They may be few and far between, but you gotta take them.
It could be worse. You could be a fan of the 0-11 New York Jets.
(Photo credits: James White & Cam Newton INT – Elise Amendola of AP Photo, Adrian Phillips – Adam Glanzman of Getty Images, Stephon Gilmore – David Butler of USA TODAY Sports)
-Sara Marshall is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage and covers the New England Patriots. Follow her on Twitter @sarmarxo