Patriots Strengthen Playoff Chances, Earn Key Victory in Primetime


Ross D. Franklin / AP Photo

Patriots linebacker Raekwon McMillan celebrates a fumble recovery after stripping Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and taking it into the end zone for a touchdown.

Chris Carr, Contributing Writer

The Patriots’ team plane touched down in Glendale, Arizona this past weekend in preparation for New England’s third straight primetime matchup of the year and their second time being featured on ESPN’s Monday Night Football. However, this week, their cross-country road trip would lead them to an unfamiliar opponent, the Arizona Cardinals. 

While a win for the Patriots would be extremely beneficial in their quest for the postseason, the Cardinals entered the weekend under far more pressure, facing elimination from playoff contention. For the Cardinals, it is a game that many would call a must-win, however, due to their 4-8 record, almost all of their remaining games this season should be considered must-wins. In other words, the Patriots were aware that Arizona would present a tough task due to their newfound motivation to keep their playoff hopes alive by achieving a victory in front of their home fans. 

Arizona has fallen short of their expectations for this season, causing the frustration of their impatient fanbase to mount. The Cardinals extended quarterback Kyler Murray this past offseason, inking the fourth largest deal in NFL history, valued at just over 230 million dollars across the next 5 seasons, signaling that they believe he will be their franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future. However, the team has dealt with numerous setbacks to start the season such as a six-game suspension to their star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy, injuries to key offensive skill players Marquise Brown and James Conner, and a medical scare with their one of their defensive captains JJ Watt while awaiting the birth of his child. However, as the puzzle pieces start to reassemble and the team comes back to full strength, the Cardinals have looked significantly better as of late. While Arizona’s record doesn’t resemble some of the elite teams in the league, they still remain highly competitive every single game and their season is still far from over. 

With massive playoff implications on the line, the stage was for a primetime showdown with a rocking Monday night crowd at State Farm Stadium, home of a struggling Cardinals squad, who would play host to an inconsistent yet venerable Patriots team. However, the rocking crowd quickly turned silent as gasps filled the whole stadium when Arizona’s star quarterback Kyler Murray went down on the third play of the game with a non-contact knee injury. Murray was quickly carted off while tears ran down his face and shock took over the faces in the crowd. While the Cardinals still had a game to play in front of them, this unprecedented injury was certainly in the back of everyone’s minds for the entirety of the game. No matter the result, they knew they had more critical issues to worry about beyond just this game with a franchise quarterback’s health on the line. 

In stepped the veteran Colt McCoy under center, a serviceable backup who has been a journeyman over his long career. However, the Patriots also experienced injury issues of their own as key starters Jack Jones, Rhamondre Stevenson, and DeVante Parker all exited the game early on with their statuses left in question. The rest of the first quarter remained quiet with no score on either side, but things were likely to change soon. Stevenson’s replacement, rookie running back Kevin Harris, an unheard-of sixth-round pick out of South Carolina, took over the Patriots’ first drive of the second quarter and plowed his way into the end zone from 14 yards out for his first career NFL touchdown. The Cardinals would respond with a field goal and a touchdown, but the Patriots cut the deficit to 3 to close out the half on a Nick Folk field goal as time expired. 

On the opening drive of the second half, New England pushed the ball down the field with a sense of urgency. To cap off their methodical drive, Patriots quarterback Mac Jones hit another rookie running back, Pierre Strong Jr., on a screen pass which ended up in the end zone for his first career NFL touchdown. Searching for an answer, Colt McCoy hooked up with receiver DeAndre Hopkins on an out-route, but the ball popped out at the last second, resulting in a fumble that was scooped up by Patriots linebacker Raekwon McMillan and taken to the house for 6. While McCoy executed the simple plays, the Patriots’ defense would eventually wear him out over the course of the game, exposing crucial mistakes and forcing turnovers that would eventually lead them to a victory. In the fourth quarter, the Patriots were up by one score, but still unsatisfied and hungry to pad their lead. New England took advantage of terrific field position after a turnover on downs by Arizona and proceeded to march down the field once more. Pierre Strong Jr. recorded his second score of the day, breaking off a 19-yard touchdown run to make it 20 unanswered points for the Patriots and a satisfying 27-13 victory on the road.

While Patriots quarterback Mac Jones has been under heavy criticism from Patriots fans this season, following up his superb rookie campaign with what sports analysts refer to as the dreaded “sophomore slump” in his second season, his ability to spread the ball around to a variety of receivers throughout the game was impressive. One of those receivers was Marcus Jones, who was once again involved in the offense for the second straight game. The speedy rookie has proven to be the most versatile player in the league and the only one to be consistently used on offense, defense, and special teams. While it didn’t show up on the box score, the increased playing time dealt to defensive tackle Daniel Ekuale seemed to pay off. Despite a relatively quiet night on the stat sheet with a sack and 3 tackles, his block-shedding and run-stuffing ability lead me to believe that a breakout game is inevitable in the coming weeks. Alongside him on the defensive line, it was another stunning performance for Matt Judon, who added to his league-leading 14.5 sack total and continues to show why he is one of the best edge rushers in the NFL. Back to the offensive side of the ball, while Rhamondre Stevenson’s injury was unfortunate, this situation opened the door for a pair of rookie running backs, Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris, who both recorded their first career touchdowns on Monday night. I believe that this injury revealed two hidden gems in the Patriots’ backfield that can serve as excellent replacements if Rhamondre Stevenson has to miss more time.

However, unlike New England, there weren’t many bright spots in this one for Arizona. After the game, it was confirmed that Kyler Murray did, in fact, tear his ACL which will force him to miss not only this season but this injury will likely play a role next year as well. The Cardinals found success on the ground through running back James Conner, but were steered away from the run game in the 4th quarter due to their large deficit. However, with a significant downgrade at the quarterback position following the injury, I believe that they should rely on the ground game more frequently in the next few weeks. Luckily for them, based on how the rest of the games around the league turned out, Arizona’s playoff hopes are technically not dead yet. Nonetheless, it would require a miraculous turnaround for this team to salvage their season and if they do underachieve the rest of the season, head coach Kliff Kingsbury will be on the hot seat this offseason.

Overall, it has been a year full of ups and downs in New England, but the Patriots will need to continue to put their best foot forward in order to execute a successful playoff push. Meanwhile, it will be an extremely uphill battle for a desperate Cardinals squad the rest of the way.