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Ben Volin | Instant analysis

Patriots did plenty to lose, but they were handed a gift in 20-17 win over Cardinals

Nick Folk was only in field-goal range thanks to a late penalty called against the Cardinals' Isaiah Simmons.
Nick Folk was only in field-goal range thanks to a late penalty called against the Cardinals' Isaiah Simmons.Maddie Meyer/Getty

Instant Analysis from the Patriots’ 20-17 win over the Cardinals:

▪ The Patriots have nothing to apologize for, and a win is a win. But boy, were they handed a gift on Sunday.

“I said in the locker room, ‘I’d rather have an ugly win than a pretty loss,’ ” Cam Newton said. “When we needed it we got the job done, and that’s all that counts.”

They improved to 5-6, but Newton and the Patriots’ offense didn’t exactly ascend to the moment. First, he threw an interception with inside five minutes left in the game to put the Cardinals in prime to position to win it. And though Newton did drive the Patriots 33 yards for the winning score, it was only thanks to a questionable personal foul penalty against Isaiah Simmons. The Cardinals also bailed out the Patriots when kicker Zane Gonzalez missed a 45-yard field goal attempt in the final minutes.

The Patriots have lost their fair share of close games this year, so it’s good to see them escape with a 3-point win. And they certainly get credit for executing when they needed to at the end. But this was a gift, and the Patriots were lucky this game didn’t go to overtime.

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▪ Bill Belichick may have whiffed on drafting a kicker in the fifth round this year, but he sure did get it right with Nick Folk, who hit his second game-winner of the season, both of which came from 50-plus yards. Folk went 2 for 2 Sunday and has hit his last 19 field goal attempts. Meanwhile, Stephen Gostkowski is having an inconsistent season in Tennessee. Folk may not have the biggest leg, but his accuracy has been tremendous this year.

▪ Not an impressive game by Newton by any stretch. He completed just 9 of 18 passes for 84 yards, two interceptions, and a 23.6 passer rating. He had a few nice connections with Jakobi Meyers (five catches for 52 yards), but otherwise the passing game was non-functional. The Patriots’ first three scoring drives started in Arizona territory, and they drove more than 35 yards just once all game.

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Newton’s accuracy was a mess, and his pocket presence was poor. Newton had little feel for the pass rush and took three unnecessary sacks. The Patriots also struggled to pick up the blitz again, leading to an interception on Newton’s first pass attempt of the game.

Newton was better as a runner, rushing nine times for 46 yards and making a good decision on the option pitch to James White for the Patriots’ first touchdown. But the passing offense is going backward.

▪ The Patriots’ offense gained just 179 yards, the fewest it has gained in a win in the Belichick era (and tied for third-fewest in team history). The Patriots can’t expect to keep winning games if they can’t move the football.

▪ What a great effort from the Patriots’ defense, which held the dynamic duo of Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins in check. The Cardinals didn’t have a passing play longer than 19 yards, and had to earn their way down the field all game. They had a 12-play field goal drive, a 15-play drive with no points, and a 16-play touchdown drive.

The Patriots held Murray to just 170 passing yards on 34 pass attempts, and 31 rushing yards on five attempts. Hopkins, shadowed for most of the day by Stephon Gilmore, had just five catches for 55 yards.

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▪ And what an unbelievable goal line stand by the Patriots at the end of the second quarter, first to keep Keesean Johnson out of the end zone and then to stuff Kenyan Drake at the 1-inch line. If not for two ill-timed defensive holding penalties by Gilmore and Jason McCourty late in the game, the Patriots would have pitched a shutout over the final three quarters.

▪ A few great tactics by the Belichicks. The Patriots were determined not to let Murray beat them on the outside, and Kyle Dugger and Josh Uche had great games setting the edge of the defense, as they did two weeks ago against Lamar Jackson. And the Patriots had a great cat-and-mouse game plan on third downs — they blitzed heavily in the first half but pulled back in the second half. In the third quarter they faked a big blitz, backed off, and Murray threw an interception to Adrian Phillips.

▪ The Patriots’ defense and special teams finally made some big plays. Donte Moncrief took over kickoff duties from a struggling Gunner Olszewski and immediately broke off a 53-yard return to set up the Patriots’ first touchdown. Olszewski later ripped off a 58-yard punt return that set up a Patriots’ field goal. And Phillips’s interception in the third quarter gave the Patriots the ball at the Cardinals’ 31 and set up their second touchdown. The Patriots need these type of big plays to boost their ineffective offense.

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Donte Moncrief had 53-yard kickoff return in the first quarter.
Donte Moncrief had 53-yard kickoff return in the first quarter.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

▪ The Patriots are one of the worst first-quarter teams in the NFL this season with a minus-25 point differential, and they kept it going Sunday. They couldn’t handle the blitz and Newton threw an interception on his first pass of the game. They missed tackles and let the Cardinals march right into the end zone. Newton had no feel for the pocket and took a bad sack. And they fell behind, 10-0, before finally settling into the game.

The Patriots have been a great second-half team over the past month. Imagine how good they would be if they didn’t sleep-walk through the first 15 minutes.

▪ White doesn’t always make a big impact on the stat sheet, but when the Patriots need a play, he’s their only choice. White only gained 17 total yards, but he made two of the biggest plays of the day.

On fourth and 2 at the 7 in the second quarter, White took an option pitch from Newton and made the perfect cut up the middle to not only convert the first down but also get into the end zone. And in the third quarter, with the Patriots struggling to punch the ball into the end zone, White took a toss sweep to the left on third and 1and found the end zone to put the Patriots ahead.

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▪ Belichick was visibly upset about the blindside block penalty on Anfernee Jennings that wiped out Olszewski’s punt return touchdown, but I don’t see what the problem is.

Foxborough, MA: 11-29-20:  Patriots return man Gunner Olszewski (80,right) had this third quarter kick return for a touchdown called back when teammate Anfernee Jennings (58, left) was called for a penalty for the block he is throwing on the Cardinals Ezekiel Turner (47).  The New England Patriots hosted the Arizona Cardinals in a regular season NFL football game at Gillette Stadium. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff).
Foxborough, MA: 11-29-20: Patriots return man Gunner Olszewski (80,right) had this third quarter kick return for a touchdown called back when teammate Anfernee Jennings (58, left) was called for a penalty for the block he is throwing on the Cardinals Ezekiel Turner (47). The New England Patriots hosted the Arizona Cardinals in a regular season NFL football game at Gillette Stadium. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff).Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Rule 12.7 states, “It is a foul if a player initiates a block when his path is toward or parallel to his own end line and makes forcible contact to his opponent with his helmet, forearm, or shoulder.” Jennings’s body may have been facing the sideline, but he was clearly launching his body toward his own goal line. This rule was passed in 2019 and is part of the NFL’s emphasis on health and safety. The league noted last year that one-third of all concussions on punt plays came on hits like this.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.