FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – A close inspection of the season statistics heretofore for the Patriots and Cardinals showed two teams very closely matched in several categories, suggesting that this latest matchup between them might come down to penalties and turnovers.
The latter happened first and almost immediately.
"It was a whole bunch of back-and-forth… a lot of emotion," safety Adrian Phillips pointed out afterward. "These type of games, you really have to hone in on your emotions and make sure you're focused on what you need to do, because any little mistake can be game-ending and give you the loss."
On the third play from scrimmage, Arizona linebacker Jordan Hicks blitzed QB Cam Newton and made it untouched into the backfield to dislodge the ball from Newton's grasp as he was cocking back to throw. The ball squirted into the air momentarily before falling into the waiting arms of linebacker Markus Golden for an easy INT at the New England 23-yard line.
"That was on me. I missed blitz pickup. That gave them a short field," running back and co-captain James White confessed to reporters post-game.
Arizona QB Kyler Murray needed as many plays to get his team into the end zone. Running back Kenyan Drake finished things off on the third Cardinals snap with a 1-yard plunge over the goal line. With a Zane Gonzalez extra point, the Cards were up, quickly, 7-0, just three minutes into the contest.
Next Patriots series, it appeared Newton and the Patriots were initially making progress moving the ball, but ultimately had to punt. Jake Bailey dropped a wonderful punt inside the Arizona 5, downed just as expertly by Justin Bethel.
Murray and the Cardinals O got themselves out of danger right away, though, and moved the ball 68 yards to set up a 47-yard Gonzalez field goal. He connected, and with under two minutes to play in the opening quarter, Arizona led 10-0.
New England got a boost on the ensuing kickoff from veteran practice squad call-up Donte Moncrief, who niftily returned the ball 53 yards into Cardinal territory.
"We had a right return on. Jak [Johnson] and Gunner Olszewski made two great blocks and I just followed them. I saw a hole and hit the crease," Moncrief explained. "I remember Coach told me during the week, 'There's going to be a crease. Just got to hit it.' I put my trust in what he told me, and I did, and it worked."
The teams traded penalties on consecutive plays, but the Patriots still advanced into the Arizona red zone.
Electing to go for it on 4th-and-2 from the Cardinal 7, the Patriots called an option pitch from Newton to White. He then made a perfect cut against the grain of the defensive flow and reached the ball over the goal line. Nick Folk's successful PAT trimmed the score to 10-7 at the beginning of the second quarter.
"It's been a while, for sure. It did feel good to get in [the end zone]," White chuckled, "trying to make some plays for my team."
After the Cardinals subsequently punted, New England took over at their own 14 with 10 minutes remaining in the half. Yet, they, too, were forced to boot the ball back to Arizona.
Murray and the Cardinals then mounted a clock-draining drive down to the Patriots' red zone. However, a dropped pass in the end zone, an overturned touchdown call, and a failure to cross the goal line from the six-inch line on consecutive plays kept the score remained 10-7 Arizona at intermission.
"The mindset," defensive lineman Adam Butler remarked, "is just not to get moved. Don't get moved, don't lose ground, and fight to the end of the whistle. In the trenches, it's a man-versus-man game. Our group has had some ups and downs, but we decided to step up and take control of the game."
The Cards got the ball to start the second half, but had to punt. A tremendous return for a touchdown by Olszewski was negated, though, thanks to rookie Anfernee Jennings' illegal block penalty during the return. Nevertheless, the Patriots took over inside Cardinal territory again. They managed to get to the Cardinals' 4, but no further. Folk tacked on a field goal from there to knot the score at 10 midway through the third quarter.
When the Cardinals got the ball back, they soon gave it away when a Murray pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage by Butler and intercepted by Phillips at the Arizona 31.
"I was fortunate enough to come down with it," Phillips continued. "Over the past couple weeks, we've had opportunities before an interception and been missing out on them. So, it was good to get a turnover and give our offense the ball on a short field."
White later scored his second touchdown of the afternoon after taking a toss in motion from Newton and beating several Cards defenders to the pylon. That gave New England its first lead of the game. With his point-after, Folk upped the score to 17-10 with 3:30 remaining in the third.
The Patriots got the ball back soon thereafter via a Cardinals punt, but only held onto it a few plays before punting themselves. Arizona had possession to begin the fourth quarter.
Facing a 4th-and-5 from the New England 13, the Cards elected to go for it and Murray threw a seeming drive-ending incompletion in the end zone. However, cornerback Jason McCourty committed a defensive holding penalty to give the Cardinals an automatic 1st down.
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore committed the same infraction a few plays later, giving Arizona another fresh set of downs inside the 5. Drake eventually powered his way into the end zone, and Gonzalez' PAT evened things up at 17 in the middle of the fourth.
As the Patriots were moving the ball toward a possible scoring opportunity, Newton threw an interception to cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick around midfield. Arizona was well positioned with less than five minutes to go.
Right after the two-minute warning, Gonzalez pushed a 45-yard field goal wide right, keeping things level at 17. The Patriots took over, though, with no timeouts.
On 3rd-and-13, Newton kept the ball and ran for a 1st down, getting hit hard as he reached the sideline. Arizona was penalized 15 yards on the play, so the Patriots were well within Cardinal territory. Folk promptly drilled a 50-yarder – his 19th consecutive three-pointer –to win it with no time left on the clock. New England survived a game that, as expected, was filled with penalties and turnovers.
"I'd rather have an ugly win than a pretty loss," Newton acknowledged. "We didn't play our best game offensively, but when we needed it, we got the job done. That's all that counts."
"It was a team effort," Gilmore professed. "Coach had a great game plan. The guys up front played well in containing [Murray]. We tried to play tight coverage on the back end. It's all 11 guys doing their job. That's what it takes to slow down an offense like theirs."
"Guys are going to keep fighting, whether we're up or down," added White. "Couple bad plays, couple good plays, we'll keep fighting, try to find a way to win the football game. It wasn't pretty. I made a couple of bonehead plays myself... I think we made enough plays to win the football game. That's what's most important."
"Good way to wrap up the Thanksgiving weekend," head coach Bill Belichick observed in his post-game comments to reporters. "We have two big games in L.A. next week. So, we'll try to enjoy this one for a little while."