Glendale, AZ – The Patriots playoff hopes are alive for another week with a crucial 27-13 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football at State Farm Stadium.
With the Patriots disjointed offense making an appearance for the second week in a row, Monday night's must-win effort felt like a summation of New England's entire season.
As it presently stands, the Patriots are back in the AFC playoffs as the third wild-card team and are in the driver's seat for the seventh seed. Due to holding the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Jets and a better conference record than the Chargers, the Pats control their own destiny.
If you care to dream, New England has a home game against the Dolphins in three weeks that could allow them to leap-frog Miami in the wild-card standings. Everything is there for the taking, and it's also fair to point out that they played without their top two wideouts (Meyers, Parker) and running backs (Stevenson, Harris) for most of the game.
However, bringing things back to reality, the Patriots don't look like a team equipped to handle a four-game final stretch that includes matchups against the Bengals (9-4), Fins (8-5), and Bills (10-3) that will surely need a significantly better offensive performance to notch victories.
Due to their remaining strength of schedule and the current state of their offense, a team that controls its own destiny for a postseason berth still only has a 39% chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight, and it's easy to see the predictive models logic.
The offense under unofficial play-caller Matt Patricia lacks imagination, downfield threats and continues to have three-play sequences leading to punts like this: stuffed run (first down), incomplete screen pass (second down), false start on an offensive tackle (Brown), and a third-and-14 play where they wave the white flag. For those that need more examples, try this one: stuffed run (first down), second down drop (Agholor), delay of game to make it third-and-15, and surrender on third down.
We could also point out another discombobulated two-minute drill that nearly lost three points on a botched handoff, with the quarterback rescuing a field goal opportunity.
The offense is in a groundhog day-like loop, where it's the same product every week in another win over a backup quarterback following a knee injury to two-time Pro Bowler Kyler Murray on the third play of the game. We can pretend for another week that this team is in a playoff race because, mathematically, they are, but our eyes and instincts know better.
Until the offense looks like a respectable operation and the defense responds to doubts about their performance against elite offenses, let's be real, this team has a ways to go.
Here are nine takeaways as the Patriots remain in the playoff race with a pivotal win in the desert to improve to 7-6 on the season:
1. Powerful Play of the Game presented by Enel: Raekwon McMillan's 23-Yard Scoop-and-Score That Might've Saved the Patriots Season on Monday Night
With the Patriots deadlocked in a 13-13 tie with the Colt McCoy-led Cardinals, these two offenses were headed towards a rock fight that could've come down to the wire.
Despite an injury to Kyler Murray on the opening drive, the Pats defense didn't adjust their game plan much with a cover-three, zone-heavy plan where they stayed the course against McCoy, who was in a rhythm at times, finding openings in the post-safety zones.
However, the game, and potentially the season, flipped when safety Kyle Dugger tackled Cardinals wideout DeAndre Hopkins with the All-Pro receiver on the move. Hopkins was loose with the ball, and Dugger's spinning tackle caused him to cough up the football, and McMillan was Johnny on the spot to scoop up the ball, stay in bounds, and return it to the house.
"I was really running over there to make sure my guy made the tackle because we missed a couple of tackles today. I was looking back, and it was only me and a lineman. I gotta beat the lineman. If I can't beat a lineman, then I don't need to be out here," McMillan said after the game.
If the Patriots get all three phases rolling to make the playoffs, remember McMillan's scoop-and-score against the Cardinals on Monday night. It'll be the turning point in their season.
2. Patriots Rookie Skill Players Offer Source of Optimism for the Offense
As we mentioned, the Patriots offense played almost the entire game without four key contributors (Stevenson, Meyers, Harris, Parker) and still found a way to get a win in the desert.
The rookies stepped up for the veterans, offering a legitimate source of optimism for the offense moving forward. First-year running back Pierre Strong led the team in rushing with two explosive runs (70 yards), Kevin Harris had a bruising touchdown, Tyquan Thornton had four catches for 28 yards, and Marcus Jones's game-breaking ability was once again a major threat.
At one point, you looked up and saw arguably the fastest skill group in years for New England: Nelson Agholor, Jonnu Smith, Thornton, Jones, and Strong. Speed, baby. The Patriots got Strong in the open field a few times on a 44-yard shotgun draw and a nifty 19-yard run to close the game out, finally flashing that 4.37-second speed.
It'll go a long way if a few rookies can emerge and bring some big-play ability to this offense.
3. Patriots Pass-Rush Duo Josh Uche and Matthew Judon Close out the Cardinals
When the Patriots force opposing offenses into passing situations, the defensive front can get after the quarterback and take over the game. On Monday night, two familiar faces led the charge as Josh Uche (three sacks) and Matthew Judon (1.5 sacks) closed out the Cardinals. Over the last two weeks, Judon has been getting extra attention from offenses, creating opportunities for Uche to feast on one-on-one rushes.
"When you have a Hall of Famer on the other side, he's going to draw a lot of attention," Uche told Patriots.com. "He commands that respect because he's that special of a player."
Although the Pats sack duo lit up the stat sheet late, Uche's key rush caused McCoy to short-arm a throw intended for DeAndre Hopkins that fell in Marcus Jones's lap for an easy interception. Uche used a speed-to-power move all night on Cardinals left tackle Josh Jones, which dented the pocket for a huge play. The Patriots defense is at its best when it can unlock Judon and Uche to do their thing.
4. Patriots Defense Gets For Fourth-Down Stops in Win
Another positive angle for the defense was holding the Cardinals to one conversion on five fourth-down attempts, continuing a trend where the defense consistently wins on fourth down to force de facto turnovers by getting the offense off the field.
One of the crucial early plays came when linebacker Jahlani Tavai broke up a fourth-and-one pass near the end of the first half. Tavai told Patriots.com that he read crack toss initially with the receiver coming in motion but had the flat in cover three and was able to recover underneath the tight end's route. The fourth down stop led to three points for the offense before the half, which was a big swing early in the game.
5. Pats Continue to Expand Marcus Jones's Role in the Offense and Defense
The coaching staff's best wrinkle to date is an emerging package for rookie speedster Marcus Jones. His return ability has translated well to offense, adding a much-needed game-breaker with the ball in his hands that is a threat to score every play. In Monday night's win, Jones was more of a decoy on motion and option plays where the defense's reaction opened holes for others elsewhere.
"If all the defenses are coming towards me and it's opening up other people, it's a-ok with me. As long as it's creating yards, it's okay with me," Jones told me.
There are several different play variations the Patriots can incorporate off Jones's role, including potentially a fake-and-go where they bluff the screen to hit receivers downfield. Let's hope that's coming.
6. Another Week, Another Round of Criticisms for Play-Caller Matt Patricia
The Patriots unofficial play-caller will face his fair share of criticism for another lackluster week for the offense. New England again leaned on the quick game and screens, with Mac averaging just five air yards per pass attempt. That's not surprising, given the Cardinals heavy blitz tendencies, but it doesn't make for an exciting offense filled with explosive plays.
With the offense's injuries and the matchup, the game plan wasn't our biggest gripe. However, the Pats need to avoid leaving tight end Hunter Henry one-on-one with an edge rusher as they did on Jones's interception. The play design is to simulate a duo run with the interior double-teaming to sell the fake. But Henry can't hold up on those blocking assignments. Let's put players in positions to succeed.
7. Patriots Offensive Line Continues to Hold Offense Back, Especially at Tackle
If you want the Patriots to push the ball downfield more, they need their offensive line to find its form. The Pats tackles, in particular, are having problems with technique. Overshooting their landmarks, getting off-balance in their pass sets, and throwing untimely cut blocks that need an explanation. Unfortunately, a sturdy solution might not be on this roster, making offensive tackle a major off-season priority - like a first-round pick-type priority.
8. Patriots QB Mac Jones Picks His Spots Versus Aggressive Cardinals Defense
The Patriots quarterback being the eighth talking point in this game could be seen in both a positive and negative light, but it's a positive from this perspective for this team. The Pats aren't equipped to open up the passing game against a blitz-happy defense, and Mac did his best to pick his spots to throw the ball downfield.
New England's QB1's two best downfield throws came on seam passes to tight end Hunter Henry, something that works every time the Pats dial it up. Jones hit Henry on a 39-yard strike to set up a touchdown to put the game on ice, where New England ran four verticals against a cover-three structure. Mac initially looked left to move the zone in that direction, then came back to an open Henry with some serious zip to hit the Pats tight end in stride.
Although they'll need more from the passing offense in the future, the Patriots pile up wins against teams like the Cardinals when Jones maximizes his opportunities and limits mistakes.
9. Patriots RB Rhamondre Stevenson Leaves Game With Ankle Injury
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones said it best when he called Stevenson one of the team's best players. The Pats need their second-year running back, who left the game twice and eventually didn't return, healthy for the stretch run. The good news is Stevenson's ankle wasn't in a cast, he wasn't on crutches, and was in good spirits after the game. Hopefully, they avoided disaster here.