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Chad Finn | Unconventional Preview

In a season of must-win games just to stay afloat, Patriots face another against the Cardinals on Monday night

Running quarteracks have given the Patriots trouble, and Kyler Murray is among the swiftest.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Welcome to Season 11, Episode 13 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup …

One of the hard realities from the Patriots’ current status as a dweller of the NFL’s mediocre middle is that they find themselves having to play so-called “must-win” games frequently just to keep their heads above water to reach the postseason.

By my count, there have been three must-wins this season so far against flawed or unimpressive teams, opponents that wouldn’t have warranted much concern in the dynasty years:

The first was in Week 2 against Pittsburgh, after the Patriots lost their opener to Miami. The second occurred in Week 5 against the Lions, after an overtime loss to the Packers the previous week dropped the Patriots to 1-3. And the third came in Week 8 against the Jets (to be fair, a good team with a terrible quarterback situation) the week following the Monday night debacle against the Bears.

The Patriots have had other important games, of course, and matchups with far better opponents. But they had to have those three aforementioned games just to remain in the .500 range. And they won all three. They were must-wins, won.


They’ll play a fourth that falls into this category when they face quarterback Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals Monday night. The Patriots, who haven’t played since their mundane 24-10 Thursday night loss to the Bills Dec. 1, need the win to remain above .500 and remain on the edges of the AFC playoff race, particularly with tough matchups against the Bengals, Dolphins, and Bills still looming this season. The last time we saw them, Mac Jones was rightfully freaking out about overmatched de facto offensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s passive play-calling.

With 10 days between games, is it too much to hope that some of their offensive maladies have been remedied? It might be, with injuries plaguing the already-thin offensive line and reliable receiver Jakobi Meyers in concussion protocol.


The Cardinals have more pure talent than the Patriots, a worse record, and plenty of issues of their own. Murray and coach Kliff Kingsbury, an offensive coordinator in a head coach’s clothing, don’t always see eye to eye, and Murray gives off a vibe of selfishness that has put off teammates in the past. They’ve also lost four of their past five games, which officially places them in the “reeling” category.

The Cardinals do have two attributes that have given the Patriots recurring trouble: A mobile quarterback (Murray has 415 rushing yards to go with his 2,359 passing yards and 14 touchdowns against 7 interceptions) and a legitimate No. 1 receiver (DeAndre Hopkins). And don’t write off letter-jacket aficionado J.J. Watt (6½ sacks), who could have a rejuvenating day against the Patriots’ patchwork offensive line.

Kick it off, Folk, and let’s get this thing started …

Three players to watch other than the quarterbacks

At age 30 and coming off a six-game suspension, DeAndre Hopkins has been as dangerous as ever.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

DeAndre Hopkins: The long-standing axiom that a Bill Belichick defense will take away what an opposing offense does best isn’t false, but it hasn’t exactly held true at all times this season. The Patriots did shut down Browns running back Nick Chubb, the NFL’s leading rusher at the time, in Week 6, holding him to 56 yards, but they’ve had a much more difficult time dealing with elite receivers, especially lately. In their recent losses to the Vikings and Bills, Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson and Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs torched Patriots defensive backs for a combined 16 catches, 231 yards, and 2 touchdowns. At age 30, Hopkins remains a bona fide No. 1 receiver, and Belichick paid him high praise this week, calling him “as good as anyone I’ve coached against.” In six games since returning from a suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy, Hopkins has 49 receptions for 574 yards and three touchdowns. That’s just one reception and 19 fewer yards than the Patriots’ top wide receiver, Jakobi Meyers, has compiled in 10 games.


Rhamondre Stevenson has been one of the league's best runners after contact.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Rhamondre Stevenson: There’s been plenty of talk, including in this space in recent weeks, about how the Patriots’ coaching staff has let down Mac Jones this season. In a way, they’re also doing it to Stevenson, despite his emergence as one of the finest three-down running backs in the league in his second NFL season. He’s facing a degree of difficulty that really isn’t fair. The makeshift offensive line is inconsistent at best. The play-calling meets at the intersection of rudimentary, predictable, and conservative. And his workload recently, with Damien Harris injured in the Week 12 loss to the Vikings and missing last Thursday’s loss to the Bills, is exhausting to the point of tempting injury — he played 98 percent of the offensive snaps against Buffalo, a career-high and a ton for a heavy-usage running back. Stevenson’s statistics are impressive — 734 rushing yards and a 4.6 per carry average, along with 56 catches for 383 yards — under any context. They’re even more impressive when you consider that 391 of those rushing yards have come after contact, and he averages 2.4 yards after the initial hit, fifth among NFL running backs. The Cardinals’ run defense allows 110.8 rushing yards per game, 11th-best in the league, so Stevenson will have to work hard for every gain Monday night. He should be used to it by now.


If Budda Baker gets his hands on the ball, he's wont to take it a distance.Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

Budda Baker: At this writing, Belichick hasn’t yet soliloquized during a press conference on the many merits of Baker, the Cardinals’ two-time All-Pro free safety, and that’s something of a surprise. Baker is the kind of smart, instinctive, versatile player Belichick admires, sort of an Ed Reed lite. He makes a habit of being wherever the action is, making at least 10 tackles in three of the Cardinals’ past five games, and returned an interception 53 yards for a touchdown in a Week 10 win over the Rams. Mac Jones was right to want to get away from the “quick” game against the Bills and try to take some chances down the field, but that may not be wise to do within Baker’s coverage range. On his six interceptions over the past three seasons, he’s averaged 36.7 yards per return, including a 90-yarder against the Seahawks in 2020 when he was caught from behind by Terminator-in-disguise D.J. Metcalf. The Patriots should be able to throw against the Cardinals’ cornerbacks — Arizona’s pass defense ranks 24th in the league, allowing 245.4 yards per game — but Baker must be accounted for at all times.


Grievance of the week

I believe this to be true: Bill Belichick has goofed up more this season than during any other in his 23 years as Patriots coach.

The condensed list of goofs: He shouldn’t have traded Shaq Mason, who has missed one of the Buccaneers’ 852 offensive snaps this season, for the pittance of a fifth-round pick. He shouldn’t have played Jones, still recovering from a high ankle sprain, against the Bears. And he absolutely should not have let Matt “It’s Like a Defensive Guy is Calling Offense” Patricia and Joe Judge anywhere near Jones, whose development should have been the team’s highest priority this season.

Belichick deserves plenty of criticism for how this season has gone. But the notion that he might be slipping, and the enormous leap to concluding that the Krafts might want to consider a coaching change after the season, is obnoxiously premature, driven by sports radio and those who have long awaited his comeuppance for one reason (he habitually embarrassed the team you root for) or another (he embarrassed you).

The Patriots won the Super Bowl four years ago. For most franchises, that counts as recently. For the Patriots, it feels like a long time ago because of the unprecedented standard of excellence Belichick and Tom Brady set for two decades.

Resentment toward Belichick for Brady’s departure after the ‘19 season is fair to a degree, and these last three seasons of treading water have not been much fun. But Belichick deserves more benefit of the doubt than any coach in NFL history to get an uninspiring situation straightened out. Tom Landry coached for 11 more seasons after his last Super Bowl win, Chuck Noll 12, and Don Shula — whose career win record Belichick is approaching — a staggering 22.

I’m not saying Belichick deserves that kind of franchise-stagnating long-term leeway. But the suggestion that it might be time to move on from him after a few so-so seasons is an unappealing combination of impatience and near total loss of perspective.

Prediction, or where have you gone, Neil Lomax?

Two seasons ago, during the 2020 Cam Newton Quarterback Interlude, the 5-6 Patriots beat the 6-5 Cardinals in Week 12, 20-17. James White scored a pair of touchdowns, Ja’Whaun Bentley made 14 tackles and backboned a Patriots goal-line stand just before halftime, and Nick Folk drilled a winning 50-yard field goal with no time on the clock.

Back in 2020, Nick Folk drilled a 50-yard field goal as time expired to beat the Cardinals.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

What else? Murray threw for just 170 yards and an interception, and rarely attempted to run, taking off five times for 31 yards. Josh Uche, whose true breakthrough has come in the last five games (seven sacks), actually made a key play in that game, holding the edge on Murray on one play and chasing him out of bounds.

I bring this up because I can see this game going in a very similar way. The Patriots will shut down the easily frustrated Murray, save for a successful shot down field or two to Hopkins and/or Hollywood Brown. Stevenson will find the end zone a couple of times as White did back then, Belichick will again outwit his 2003 draft pick Kingsbury, and yes, Folk will have to win the thing. The Patriots will keep their streak of winning must-wins against fellow mediocrities alive. Patriots 20, Cardinals 17.

Chad Finn can be reached at Follow him @GlobeChadFinn.