On a day when their offense had their lowest output of the season, the Patriots defense and special teams found a way against the Cardinals to make the complementary plays necessary to pull out a hard-fought win. In the process, New England derailed some of the recurring narratives this season, in yet another 2020 contest that came down to the final plays of the game.
The Pats have been consistently inconsistent this season, but in two of the three phases they turned in some of their best performances of the season. It was enough to overcome the offense's worst performance of the year and give them just enough of a boost to get the the victory in a penalty-marred game.
Here are the plays and themes that defined the Patriots dramatic fifth win of the season.
Interception on third offensive snap
It's hard to imagine a worse start than the Patriots got, with Cam Newton having a deflected pass intercepted on the third play of the game and the Cardinals then needing just three plays to get 23 yards into the end zone for an early 7-0 lead.
On the third down, the Cardinals sent six rushers, a common theme on the game as the Patriots offense has had trouble in recent weeks sorting out their protections. The immediate pressure came from the right side of the line, with Michael Onwenu and James White both taking the same rusher, which allowed Jordan Hicks a straight line to Newton.
"Obviously it wasn't pretty, had a couple of bonehead plays out there myself," said White after the game. "So just have to make the corrections, try to start faster. It's good to see that everybody just keeps competing no matter what the situation is."
Slow starts this season have often felt like a death sentence, and when the Cardinals tacked on another field goal with their 12-play next possession, it looked like it might be a long day for the Patriots, especially with the offense failing to put together any drives longer than eight plays.
But this time, even without their best offensive football, the Patriots continued to fight and found a way to claw their way back into the game.
4th-down conversion gets Pats back in it
The first big complementary play of the game came after the Pats had fallen into that 10-point hole. After ranking close to the bottom of the league in starting field position all season, they inserted practice squad veteran Donte Moncrief at kickoff returner and he produced their best return of the season, 53 yards.
"We had the right return on and Jak [Jakob Johnson] and Gunner [Olszewski] made two great blocks," said Moncrief. "So, I just followed them and I saw the hole. I hit the crease. I remember coach telling me early on in a week, he was like, 'There's going be a hole, you've just got to hit it.' I just put my trust in what he told me, and when I did it, it worked."
Even with starting field position at the Cardinals 46, it was still a grind for the offense. They'd get a boost from a Cardinals lowering the head penalty that resulted in a net of 28 yards, but a failed jet sweep on 3rd-and-3 set up a big fourth-down situation from the Arizona seven-yard line.
Perhaps sensing that points would be at a premium, the Pats decided to go for it. Their aggressiveness paid off, with an option right to James White not only picking up a first down, but the touchdown as well. Downfield blocking by Shaq Mason and Michael Onwenu opened up enough of a seam for White to get upfield for his first touchdown of the season, as he powered through two Cardinals defenders in a play slightly reminiscent of his Super Bowl 51 game-winner.
"It's been a while for sure so it did feel good to get in there," said White. "Try to make some plays for my team. Obviously it wasn't a high-scoring game, so any time you can score in these types of games, it's very important."
Goal-line stand before the half
A week after getting burned for a number of big plays, the Patriots defense got better and better containing Arizona in each quarter. They didn't give up a play of 20 yards-or-more in the game. The tackling was improved, with the defensive front leading the way, including strong performances against the run by Lawrence Guy, Ja'Whaun Bentley and Terez Hall, who is playing with increasing aggressiveness and anticipation.
The teams traded punts in the second quarter, before Arizona started to move the ball on their final possession of the first half, but the Patriots defense forced continued execution, seeing four third downs on the drive. That bend-don't-break attitude paid off.
As the Cardinals got closer to the end zone, the Pats only got tougher, until it all led to a fourth-down attempt with just one second left before the break.
With the Patriots front missing some notable defensive tackles in Byron Cowart and Carl Davis, Kliff Kingsbury was aggressive, looking to do what so many teams have done this season to the Patriots -- close out the first half with a demoralizing score. But this time, the Patriots were ready to change that script.
"That's one thing Coach [Belichick] harped on us this week, is finishing and having better-end of-the-half play, so I think we made a big stop there to help our team out," said Stephon Gilmore after the game.
The key players were Lawrence Guy, who prevented the guard from climbing to the second level, Ja'Whaun Bentley, who was able to get through the line and make first contact, and called-up practice squad veteran Akeem Spence, who helped prevent any second surge from Kenyan Drake.
"So pretty much it was on the goal line and just 'mano y mano', just wanting to make the play and keep points off the board, which was really helpful going into halftime," said Spence. "It just so happened that the ball chose my gap and being a defensive tackle, you take pride in your gap. So the ball showed up and I had that play and took it into the half. Keeping points off the board heading into halftime is big and helps us win in the end so I am really just doing my job."
It was a signature play for the defense and one that gave the entire team a huge boost headed into the half, keeping it a three-point deficit. They'd carry that momentum into the second half.
Phillips Interception leads to the lead
Sparked by the goal-line stand, the Patriots forced a punt by the Cardinals of their first possession and despite seeing Gunner Olszewski's punt return TD called back, more on that later, they still were able to tie up the game, led by Damien Harris' 18 rushing yards.
The defense wouldn't let up, thanks in big part to a career day from Adam Butler who was stout and disruptive all night depending on what was asked of him. Butler's relentless push on 3rd-and-3 allowed him to get his hand up into the passing lane, deflecting a Murray pass that was intercepted by Adrian Phillips.
"It's crazy because the play happened so fast," said Phillips. "You go out there, you get your reads and when the ball gets tipped in the air like that, everything feels like it slows down. It feels like it's going in slow motion – well the ball feels like it's going in slow motion and the other players, they're going full speed. It just required a good amount of concentration and I was able to have that."
Phillips has had an outstanding first season with the Patriots, fitting perfectly into what the team does on defense while playing a versatile role. Combined with Kyle Dugger and the safety hybrid position looks to be in very good hands in the immediate future. Dugger played more of a deep safety role at times in this game and continues to make impressive strides. He is getting quicker to diagnose and always seems to arrive angry with a big hit.
2020 mistakes get a rewrite, thanks to defense
After the Cardinals turned in an epic 16-play, seven minute drive to tie the game up, the Patriots were bracing for another photo finish. There's been quite a few of those this season and more often than not the offense hasn't been able to deliver the critical plays to get the wins.
Thanks to 25 receiving yards by Jakobi Meyers, a flicker of optimism ignited as the Pats crossed midfield with under five minutes left in the game. But that evaporated as Newton threw an off-target pass intended for Damiere Byrd that was easily intercepted. It felt like the same nightmare was about to unfold yet again for Newton, who also saw a similar turnover cost the Patriots a chance to defeat the Bills.
"It was just a bad throw," said Newton after the game. "For me, I can't jeopardize this team and put the ball up for grabs, so to speak. I just got to get Damiere a better ball so he can compete and contest it."
Coming off their best drive of the game, it seemed almost inevitable that with a 1st-and-10 at the New England 47 and 4:27 left in the game, the Cardinals would at least be able to take the late lead. But once again the defense and special teams came through, culminating with a huge 3rd-and-1 stop that forced a 45-yard field goal attempt that was missed.
They key plays on the stop included Adam Butler, who re-established the line of scrimmage with a strong push, Chase Winovich, who also held his ground, Stephon Gilmore, who came up and set the end, and Ja'Whaun Bentley and Terez Hall. Together, Bentley and Hall snuffed out Drake, tackling him short of the first down.
"The defense made a great stand on fourth down right before halftime and then again at the end of the game," said kicker Nick Folk. "If they would have got a first down there, they could have ran the clock out and kicked a field goal, I believe. Defense made a great stand there."
"Our mentality since the season has started is it's always on us," said Adrian Phillips of the defense's performance. "We want that type of pressure and we want to be able to dictate the outcomes of the game. Like I said, we didn't do that last week and there's been other times this year where we haven't been able to do it consistently. We've shown it, but we haven't been able to do it consistently. Today we did it consistently."
Enel Powerful Play of the Game: Special teams seal the win
There's no question, every offensive point can be traced to a big play by the defense or special teams, or a fortuitous penalty. That was never more apparent than the 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on the final drive that set up the game-winning kick.
But in a game that they wouldn't have won without those key contributions, the special teams deserve enormous credit. A big kickoff return, a punt return that netted points, a 60-yard punt by Jake Bailey and of course, Nick Folk's two field goals were all critical plays in the victory.
Folk hit his 18th-straight field goal on the 50-yard game winner as the veteran has been unexpectedly unflappable this season. A year after treading water at the kicker spot, Folk has delivered as solid a year as one could've expected from him and his game-winner is this week's Enel Powerful Play of the Game.
"Mentally I try to tell myself I've done it a million times," said Folk of the pressure kick. "It's one more kick. It's the same thing over and over and over.
"Special teams came up big in the return game – big kick return, big punt return," Folk pointed out. "Jake [Bailey] punted the ball really well today. So, I think it was a full team win today, all the way around."