Patriots

5 takeaways from the Patriots’ hard-fought win over Arizona

Cam Newton can't be trusted, and other conclusions from the Patriots' win.

The first pass thrown by Cam Newton in Sunday's game was tipped by Arizona's Jordan Hicks. Jim Davis/The Boston Globe

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COMMENTARY

Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 20-17 triumph over the Cardinals, as Bill Belichick’s team toughed out a win to get back within a game of .500 and sustain their slim hopes of fighting for a playoff spot…

CREDIT THE SPECIAL TEAMS

If the Patriots use Sunday as a springboard, and make a run at a playoff berth over the final five weeks, they can thank their kicker, punter, and a previously vapid return game for making it possible — with Sunday’s win serving as a testament to the excellence of New England’s special teams, which played the perfect complement to a strong defensive effort and an offensive performance badly in need of a pick-up.

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When it was looking dire early, that oft-categorized third phase tilted the field with a timely kick return from Donte Moncrief — who had just taken over the job from Gunner Olszewski. When it needed to flip field position, Jake Bailey averaged better than 56 yards per punt.

When the defense had wrestled momentum away from the Cardinals, the punt return unit (and the partially displaced Olszewski) put together what should’ve been an 82-yard touchdown if not for a brutal penalty call. And when it came time to win the game at the end, Nick Folk made his fourth kick of the day, a 50-yard bomb that was true off the kicker’s cleat.

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Folk has been dependable throughout the year — despite not initially winning the job out of training camp — and Bailey has been among the league’s best, as well. But, prior to Sunday, special teams has not been anywhere near as impactful this season as it was last, when big plays in the kicking game were a major factor in the club getting to 12 wins.

At this point the task for the Pats, if they’re to have a prayer of getting to the postseason, is nine wins. That meant finishing 5-1 over the stretch that started against the Cardinals — and made Sunday a fine time to get a boost from the kicking units. They may need to continue making similar contributions next week in Los Angeles.

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THEY FINALLY MADE SOME PLAYS

If a singular reason could explain the Patriots losing six of the season’s first 10 games, it is the club’s lack of playmaking. Offensively, everything seems like a grind. And in four of those setbacks they came up a key play or two short of coming from behind.

Sunday, however, the Pats made plays. A bunch of them.

The offensive explosiveness still wasn’t there — but, rather, a team that has long prided itself on playing complementary football found ways to deliver difference-making plays.

When the Cardinals went up 10-0, Donte Moncrief changed the tide with a kick return that carried the ball over midfield. That helped the Pats stem the tide initially, and allowed them to stay close early. Then, just before halftime, the defense came up with a couple of goal line stops to keep the Cards off the board.

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Early in the second half the defense started with a three-and-out, followed by an Adrian Phillips interception created by Adam Butler’s ball-batting hands, and in between came a long punt return from Gunner Olszewski. That should’ve gone for a touchdown, but even with a bad call it was enough to set up an equalizing field goal.

The go-ahead score came later in the third, when the Pats nicely executed a sweep left to James White, who’d earlier scored on a fourth-and-two option toss to the right side.

After 11 games, it’s safe to say those big splash plays aren’t coming. They’re never going to be part of the repertoire for these Patriots; heck, the 15-yard penalty called for the hit to Newton’s head on the final possession was the Pats’ fourth-longest gain of the whole game.

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But Sunday marked an improvement in playmaking, and finding other ways to impact the game.  In stark contrast to too many other times this season, Sunday they looked like the Patriots we’ve come to expect.

THE DEFENSE MET THE CHALLENGE

The first-quarter struggles of the Patriots offense are part of the deal by now, as they were shut out in the opening period for the eighth time this season on Sunday. Through their first 11 snaps from scrimmage, they’d managed all of 24 yards, two first downs (one via penalty), and a turnover.

By contrast, the Cardinals’ first 11 plays gained 88 yards, seven first downs, and a touchdown. Arizona converted on a short field for a touchdown with their opening possession, then held the ball for 12 plays before kicking a field goal on their second. After an underwhelming performance in Houston, it was an ominous start for the Patriots’ defense.

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But the response from that point forward may rival the first half at Kansas City and the limitation of Lamar Jackson’s Ravens for the distinction of the group’s best performance of this season. After that rough start, the Cardinals’ next five possessions resulted in three punts, an interception, and a goal-line stand that allowed New England to turn a 10-0 deficit into a 17-10 lead. Even on the drive where Arizona rallied to tie the game, the series needed penalties on third and fourth downs to survive.

Was Kyler Murray fully functional as a runner? It didn’t appear so, and that certainly made New England’s mission easier. But the fact of the matter is that Arizona entered as the NFL’s No. 1 offense in terms of yardage, and No. 7 in points. They’re not an easy team to shut down, yet after that initial surge, the Cardinals gained just 210 yards on their final 59 plays. The Pats became just the second team this season to keep Murray’s offense under 300 yards from scrimmage. Stephon Gilmore effectively shut down DeAndre Hopkins.

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And the Pats’ defense made a statement at all three levels.

CAM CAN’T BE TRUSTED

As Folk’s game-winner split the uprights, Newton made his way over to Josh McDaniels and leaned into a half-hug with his offensive coordinator. The quarterback didn’t seem to share in the exuberance of his teammates, instead shaking his head and not showing any hint of a smile. He also appeared to be apologizing.

“I’m sorry, man,” it looked like cameras caught Newton saying to McDaniels.

That’s hardly the expected exchange between a coach who’d just seen his offense finally pull one out of the fire against a decent team, and a quarterback who’d moments earlier scrambled to convert a third-and-13 that gave his kicker a chance.

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But, honestly, it fits. While there’s no denying that Newton’s clutch run was critical to the victory, this win was far less of a credit to Newton than it was an achievement accomplished in spite of him.

In fact, the Pats’ approach to Sunday’s game suggested that 10 games into this marriage the New England coaches don’t feel as though they can trust their ex-MVP quarterback. And Newton’s performance in the contest validated that lack of faith.

Only three teams in the entire NFL have had more passes thrown against them than the Cardinals this season, and Arizona has been no better than mediocre against that challenge. Yet McDaniels and the Pats asked Newton to throw just 21 times, including the three times he was sacked.

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Of his 18 actual passes, Newton hit for just nine completions and a career-low 84 yards. That’s only 4.7 yards per attempt, and worst of all was the two interceptions — including a terrible toss that was so wide of Damiere Byrd it made cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick look like the intended target.

Those were Newton’s first turnovers of November, which should represent progress, except that they came even as the Pats appeared to be consciously tailoring their playcalling to limiting the quarterback’s opportunities to commit crippling mistakes. The throws were limited, the throws downfield were basically nonexistent, and even when logic said they should hurry to at least get into field-goal range at the end, they again opted for huddles and rushing attempts rather than assuming any sort of risk.

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They did somewhat revert back to their early season approach, with Newton carrying nine times and seeming to do slightly more with options in the running game. But even at that, the Patriots didn’t deploy Newton on Sunday expecting him to be a positive difference maker. Instead, they asked him to manage things, and tried to protect themselves from the damage they didn’t trust him to avoid.

BLITZING NEWTON IS A NO-BRAINER

The Patriots’ clear preference was to keep the ball on the ground against one of the NFL’s weaker run defenses. But what has been apparent over the past couple of months was obvious again against Arizona: For a defense, there’s no downside to blitzing the Patriots’ quarterback.

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The proof was painful in the first half especially, and particularly on third downs. On New England’s opening series, Newton failed to react to the front-side rush, and his deflected pass was picked off. On two of the Pats’ next three series the Cardinals brought an extra attacker on third down again, and twice they came up with drive-killing sacks.

On both of those sacks, Newton held the ball too long because his receivers couldn’t shake the coverage. But that’s why blitzing is almost risk-free for Patriots’ opponents. New England’s receivers aren’t dangerous enough to separate regularly, let alone to make a team truly pay for leaving them in solo coverage. If the Pats possessed that kind of talent, or if Newton had demonstrated more of an ability to read, react, and make a hot read at the snap, it might dissuade foes from bringing pressure.

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But the reality is as stark as the numbers that showed Newton entering Sunday averaging just 5.8 yards per pass attempt against the blitz.

His completion percentage dipped by 10 points against extra pressure. Even before Sunday he’d thrown three interceptions and been sacked 10 times in 110 dropbacks against the blitz. And his passer rating of 76.4 represented a 14.4 point drop from the 90.4 he’d shown against a standard rush.

Defenses will keep doing what works until the offense forces them to change. Two months since teams started bringing the heat against him, Newton still hasn’t given any opposing coordinator any reason to reconsider.

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