The 4-6 Patriots will look to get back on track this weekend against the dynamic Arizona Cardinals, as second-year quarterback Kyler Murray continues to make strides as one of the most dangerous and balanced quarterbacks in the NFL.
This will be New England's third-straight week facing a next-generation mobile quarterback and Murray is a dangerous mix of the running ability of Lamar Jackson and the passing ability of Deshaun Watson. With receiver DeAndre Hopkins giving Murray a top target, the Cardinals now have one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL that can burn defenses in any number of ways.
It's another tough challenge for a Patriots team whose playoff hopes are hanging by a thread and the Cardinals have all the pieces to stress the inconsistencies of the Patriots defense. New England will need their best overall effort of the season to get back within striking distance of evening up their season record.
What do the Pats need to do to get the win? Here's this week's Keys to the Game presented by Carmax!
While the Patriots have now put together three-straight games without a turnover, they've seen their penalties spike in recent weeks. After averaging less than three penalties-per-game through the first five games of the season, they've had 21 total in the last four games, including a season-high seven last week against the Texans.
New England is still the least penalized team in the league, but they're trending in the wrong direction and can't afford to keep hurting themselves.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals are the most penalized team in the league and have failed to produce a takeaway in five games this season. Three times they've had 10 or more penalties in a game, including last week against the Seahawks.
Combine the turnover and penalty stats and the Patriots could get a big boost if they play clean football and leave the sloppy play to Arizona. But that depends on continuing to play safe with the ball and reversing the growing trend of penalties.
Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch ahead of the Patriots matchup against the Arizona Cardinals.
Find their finish or die by the big plays
It was hard to miss the effect the big plays given up by the Patriots defense had against the Texans last week. Deshaun Watson picked the Pats defense apart with pinpoint accuracy, making Houston's lack of a run game a non-factor.
Kyle Murray and the Cardinals offense are more balanced, with the most explosive aspects coming in the run game with Murray and Kenyan Drake leading the way.
While Murray can take it the distance on any down all by himself, he can also find Hopkins downfield at any time, as Arizona stresses all levels of the defense in every situation. Can the Patriots slow them down? Plenty of defenses boasting better records have tried and none have held them under 20 points.
Strangely, New England ranks second in defensive pressure rate and first in hurry percentage, but are tied for 30th with just 13 sacks. The lack of finish that was on full display against Watson would be another recipe for disaster against the Cardinals.
Getting pressure is one thing, but finishing off Murray before he can escape or unload a deep bomb will be absolutely critical to their hopes of slowing down the vaunted attack.
Find Offensive Balance
The Patriots offense has had their moments in all aspects of the game at different times. Their dominant run game tapered off last week with their second-lowest output of the season, strangely coming against the lowest-ranked run defense in the league.
But they also put up their second-best passing performance of the season. Can they tie it all together and produce a complementary game?
Things will have to evolve again, with Rex Burkhead's injury it appears that Sony Michel will return to the lineup. Burkhead was their most balanced back and now they're left with two similar early-down backs in Michel and Harris and a third-down specialist in James White.
This could make the attack a bit more predictable, but if they can get back to running the ball like they did against Baltimore, Harris and Michel could be a potent two-headed monster, with White chipping in at key moments as he always has. As Cam Newton pointed out earlier in the week, Michel has fresh legs and had 117 yards the last time he played in Week 3, including a 48-yard scamper.
All the backs and receivers have had their good performances but never all at the same time, now, post-Thanksgiving it's time to start putting it all together. That's what has to happen if they're ever to reach the potential they've shown glimpses of.
Continued Youth Movement
Some of the shortcomings in recent weeks were simply due to increased playing time for younger players who can be inconsistent. But taking those lumps now makes sense and the Patriots should continue to play youngsters like Josh Uche, Chase Winovich and Kyle Dugger, who missed practice with a new toe injury this week and could be questionable, which would be an unfortunate setback.
Michael Onwenu continues to impress at right tackle and will once again be counted on with Isaiah Wynn likely to miss this week's game due to an injury suffered against the Texans.
Perhaps new additions like Isaiah Ford, Isaiah Mack and Jordan Thomas can also find ways to contribute. Devin Asiasi returned to practice this week after a stint on IR, and while it might be too soon to expect him to dress against the Cardinals, the quicker he's back out there in games, the better for the third-round pick.
While it's too early to say auditions for next season have begun, getting younger players experience must continue to be a focus for the Patriots as they look to find who the long-term building blocks are.
There's no way to downplay the offensive problems that the Cardinals can cause, but the Patriots should get used to seeing these kind of attacks that are slowly taking over the NFL. After facing plenty of dual-threats this season, can the defense show growth against one of the most balanced of them all? It will take their best effort of the season.
As for the Patriots offense, the loss of Burkhead and likely Wynn are major blows to what they've been successful with this season. They'll have to evolve a bit, but they still have enough to challenge a Cardinals defense that has been depleted by injuries and is decidedly average statistically. In recent weeks, it's felt like alternating steps forward and steps back, but this is another good chance to fire on all cylinders.
As usual for the 2020 Patriots, this one should come down to the very end, with New England pulling it out by riding the power run game to victory.
Patriots 24, Cardinals 21