8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Patriots -1.5, Over/Under: 43.5
Week Fourteen comes to a close tonight in the desert, where a pair of teams desperately looking to keep their postseason hopes alive clash as the New England Patriots battle the Arizona Cardinals from State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. It really is a new day in the NFL when the Patriots (6-6, 4th in AFC East) are sitting in last place in their division at this juncture of the season, though their current predicament is more of a case of the rest of the AFC East improving considerably than (Head Coach) Bill Belichick’s troops simply falling by the wayside. With that said, they nonetheless find themselves looking up at three teams that they spent the bulk of two decades using as punching bags, which must be an unacceptable feeling for many in the Northeast. So, what in the name of Troy Brown is going on in Foxborough, you ask? Well, the biggest issue for the Pats has been the most uncharacteristic under Belichick’s 23-year tenure, and that is this team has been shockingly poor in terms of decision-making and situational football. Only twice since he arrived back in 2000 has Belichick presided over a team with a negative turnover differential (2000 and 2005), and this group has nearly as many turnovers (17) as they have takeaways (19). Furthermore, they’ve been among the league’s worst on third down (36.2%) and within the red zone (37.5%), where they rank twenty-fifth and thirty-first overall respectively. (Sophomore Quarterback) Mac Jones has struggled the most in this regard, tossing seven interceptions in nine games, struggling to take the next step in a season in which he missed three games with a high ankle sprain, while also suffering from drops from his Receiving Corps (3.9%). Of course, Jones (pictured below) was drafted fifteenth overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, the first Quarterback ever drafted by Belichick in the first round, heaping a wealth of pressure on this kid’s shoulders. Granted, the loss of (longtime Offensive Coordinator) Josh McDaniels was a major story throughout the summer for the Pats, and Belichick’s curious decision to name former assistants Joe Judge and Matt Patricia, who previously coordinated his Special Teams and Defense, to that crucial position left many around the league scratching their heads. It also hasn’t helped at all that Jones has frequently been under duress, sustaining twenty-five sacks, which is three away from the twenty-eight he took last year, which was in seventeen games, while he’s already amassed this current number in just nine starts. The 24-year-old has seen his sack percentage balloon from 5.1% to 8.5%, which is one part inexperience, another part new play-calling, and one more a banged up Offensive Line that could be without up to three starters for tonight’s crucial trip to the desert. Thankfully, it has been a different story altogether on Defense, where Belichick has once again helmed one of the stingier sides in the NFL, ranking seventh in both points allowed (18.4) and total defense (311.8), nineth against the pass (200.6), twelfth versus the run (111.2), seventh in takeaways (19), and thirty-nine sacks, the second-most in the league. Indeed, the next generation of defensive stars have arrived in Foxborough, including (Rookie Cornerback) Jack Jones (2 interceptions, 5 defended passes, a forced fumble, and a touchdown), (young Linebacker) Josh Uche (7 sacks, 7 QB hits, 14 pressures) and (Pro-Bowler Edge-Rusher) Matthew Judon, who ranks second in the league with thirteen sacks along with twenty-four hits of the Quarterback, and thirty-seven pressures. With that said, this unit isn’t coming off their finest performance, as they failed to stop the Bills in a third consecutive encounter, which we’re about to get into in three… two… one…
When we last saw the Patriots, they dropped their second game in a row, a 24-10 defeat at the hands of (bitter division rival) Buffalo, who continued to widen the gulf between the two combatants. The theme between these two sides of late has been New England’s stunning inability to slow down the Bills, who in their most recent meeting, a 47-17 blowout on Wild Card Weekend, scored touchdowns on their first SEVEN possessions of the night, going the entire affair without a single punt. While this one wasn’t nearly as one-sided as its predecessor, it still left a sense of deja vu in the minds of the hosts, who relinquished scores on the first three drives of the afternoon, leading to a 17-7 halftime deficit. While Belichick’s troops managed to do a better job of containing the visitors in the second half, yielding seven points on 150 yards over four drives, the Offense could never really find any rhythm to speak of, mustering just ten points on 242 total yards. Hell, if not for logging seventy-five yards during their lone touchdown drive of the game, the Pats would author only 155 total yards on their other eight possessions, with SIX punts, four three-and-outs, a field goal, and another one missed. To give you an idea of how difficult it was for the home side to move football, look no further than their final drive of the day; over the course of SEVENTEEN plays, New England could amass just fifty-seven yards with (veteran Kicker) Nick Folk sinking a 39-yard field goal. That’s how hard they had to work for THREE points. In the end, the Patriots were outgained 355-242, mustered just fourteen first downs, were limited to 3-of-12 on third down, and possessed the football for a scant 21:52, largely due to a misfiring run game that could produce only sixty yards fourteen attempts. Needless to say, that isn’t a recipe for success for his team, as Jones was left to post only 195 passing yards despite needing thirty-six times to get there (completing 22). (Sophomore Tailback) Rhamondre Stevenson, who has enjoyed some big games this season, was relegated below sixty yards for the third straight outing, (while Rookie Cornerback) Marcus Jones continued to make plays no matter what role that Belichick has utilized him in, hauling in a 48-yard touchdown from Jones late in the first quarter. Looking to tonight’s encounter with the Cardinals, the Patriots has taken four of five meetings since the turn of the century, including their most recent, a narrow 20-17 victory at Gillette two years ago. 6-4 against the spread over their last ten games overall, New England has covered all but one of their last four games on the road, along with four of their last five when favored by the oddsmakers. On the injury front, we touched upon the issues that could be in play along the Offensive Line, where Marcus Cannon is out yet again with a concussion, while Trent Brown, Yodny Cajuste, and Isaiah Wynn are all listed as questionable with a variety of ailments. Furthermore, (veteran Tailback) Damien Harris has been week-to-week with a deep thigh bruise, while (Sophomore Defensive Tackle) Christian Barmore is out with a knee injury.
Meanwhile, it has been a similar story in the desert, for everything that could have gone wrong for the Cardinals (4-8, 3rd in NFC West) has pretty much come to pass, leaving a team that had hoped of capturing their division crown since 2015 likely on the outside looking in come playoff time. Indeed, Arizona spent the first half of the 2021 season as the darling of the NFL, racing out to a franchise-best 7-0 start, eventually ending a five-year postseason drought. However, there were some troubling signs down the stretch for the Redbirds, who dropped four of their final five games following a late bye week, before getting utterly embarrassed by (eventual Super Bowl Champion) Los Angeles on Wild Card Weekend (34-11). With that said, management felt comfortable enough in the progress that they saw, gifting both (Head Coach) Kliff Kingsbury and (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Kyler Murray to lucrative contract renewals during the summer. Unfortunately, it appears that with each passing week that this team did indeed peak last season, which throws their future into chaos. So, what in the name of Denny Green has happened in Glendale, you ask? Well, it has really been a wide variety of factors, folks, and we’ll start with obvious as injuries and absences for other reasons have played a major role in their struggles. (Veteran Tailback) James Conner missed three straight weeks with sore ribs, while the Offensive Line has been a proverbial MASH unit with three starters landing on injured reserve. However, the hardest hit has been the Receiving Corps, which been a proverbial revolving door of playmakers with various ailments; (veteran Tight End) Zach Ertz is out of the season with torn ligaments in his knee, while Rondale Morre has missed time a strained groin, with Marquise “Hollywood” Brown yet to really reconnect with his former collegiate teammate, Murray, thanks to a knee injury that cost hm five games. Oh, and (All-Pro Wideout) DeAndre Hopkins was suspended for the first six contests after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs over the offseason. Throw in the fact that Murray (pictured below) has also missed some time with a high ankle sprain, and you have a unit that has rarely had the luxury of having everyone one the same page at the same time. As you can image, this has left the diminutive passer frequently frustrated, and venting his feelings about an offense that been worryingly uneven; ranking sixteenth in points scored (22.0), Kingsbury’s troops have fallen to twentieth in total offense (355.4), with nearly as many turnovers (13) as takeaways (14). The problem has been their lack of chemistry in the passing game, which has been one part play-calling and another part personnel, for Arizona ranks just seventeenth in passing yards (240.5) despite attempting the third-most passes in the league (474), parlaying to its second-worst net yards per attempt (5.2). Basically, this group has been dinking and dunking more than anyone in the desert would prefer and have really only been able to start moving the football once their opponents employ more lax coverages due to enjoying sizable leads. And this is where Kingsbury has come under fire, folks, for even with that fresh contract extension, his future with the franchise remains murky at best. Indeed, the 43-year-old was always a curious hire for the Redbirds, given his uninspiring track record on the collegiate level (35-40 in six years at Texas Tech), and his complete lack of any NFL experience. Sure, he has been a longtime advocate of the air raid offense that has become so prevalent in college, but the leap to becoming an NFL Head Coach was deemed by many as a bridge too far to cross. A lack of balance has been one of the many criticisms of his play-calling, while his team’s penchant for slow starts has frequently drawn the ire of the fan base. Seriously, you may not find a greater gulf between how two coaches are viewed than those stalking the sidelines tonight.
When we last saw the Cardinals, they dropped their fourth game in five weeks, collapsing late in a 25-24 defeat at home to the Chargers. Despite fumbling away the football on their opening drive, this one started promising enough for Arizona, who amassed a 10-0 lead while their Defense relegated the Lightning Bolts to punts on their first three drives of the evening. However, their wasteful nature would soon rise to the surface, as Murray was picked off on a deep pass down the left sideline intended for Hopkins, directly leading to a second consecutive Los Angeles touchdown. Though the former number one overall pick would race into the end zone to retake the lead roughly three minutes later to head into intermission 17-14, the self-inflicted wounds continued into the second half, as (veteran Kicker) Matt Prater failed to connect on a 49-yard field goal. The visitors would in fact make their own attempt on the ensuing possession, only for Murray to find Conner for a 6-yard strike to make it 24-17 with 13:31 left int he affair. And that would be about it for Kingsbury’s outfit, as the home side went three-and-out on their final three possessions of the game, while (Chargers Quarterback) drove his team downfield for a touchdown, then turning right around and stunning the crowd at State Farm, with the game-winning two-point conversion. In the end, those mistakes loomed large for the Cards, who outgained LA 366-311, outrushed them 181-65, and converted a healthy 7-of-13 third downs, only to throw it all away on a fumble, an interception, and a missed field goal. Murray completed 18-of-29 passes for just 191 yards a touchdown and that costly pick, while rushing for another fifty-six yards and a score on seven carries. Conner looked completely healthy following that lingering rib injury, rushing for a season-high 120 yards on twenty-five carries, though again, his lost fumble loomed large. As for Hopkins, he reeled in four catches on five targets for eighty-seven yards and a touchdown, while Brown returned from injury to add another forty-six yards on six catches. Looking to tonight’s matchup, the Cardinals will be looking to best the Patriots for the first time since 2012. When they met two years ago in Foxborough, Arizona raced out to a 10-0 lead, though were outscored 20-7 the rest of the way, as Folk kicked the game-winning field goal from fifty yards out. The visitors dominated time of possession (34:08), rushing for 138 yards, while holding the hosts to a scant 179 yards of offense, with Murray completing 23-of-34 passes for 170 yards and a costly interception that led directly to the Pats’ game-tying touchdown. The Redbirds are a middling 5-5 against the spread in their last ten games overall, though have covered just three of their last ten affairs at State Farm. In seven meetings with New England, they covered the line just once, never doing so against them in the desert. Furthermore, they are 1-6 in their last seven outings in which they are following an against-the-spread victory, which is the case tonight. On the injury front, you would think that coming off their bye this would be a healthier team, but that isn’t necessarily the case; we talked about the offensive line issues already, but (promising Rookie Cornerback) Byron Murphy is listed as questionable due to a sore back, while the aforementioned Moore has been slowed throughout the week of practice with a tender groin.