GLENDALE, Ariz. — Next kid up.
Thrust into prominent roles because of a rash of injuries, the Patriots’ rookie class stepped up in a big way Monday night, helping to spark a 27-13 win over the Cardinals.
It may have been uncharacteristically chilly in the desert, but New England’s fleet-footed first-year backs Kevin Harris and Pierre Strong Jr. combined for 96 yards and a pair of touchdowns in place of Rhamondre Stevenson (who left with an ankle injury) and Damien Harris (inactive with a thigh issue).
In addition, Marcus Jones snagged an interception.
The win boosted the Patriots to 7-6 and kept them in the thick of things in the AFC playoff race.
“It’s always good to win, that’s what we practice for,” said Bill Belichick when asked how much of a morale booster this was for a team coming off back-to-back losses.
Hunter Henry, who had three receptions for 70 yards, agreed.
“A hundred percent. 100 percent," the tight end said. “I mean, this is what we needed. You’ve just got to start somewhere and this was big win for us and we just have to carry that into next week get ready to go."
The Cardinals (4-9) dropped deeper into the NFC abyss and now face the prospect of being without their starting quarterback, Kyler Murray, who was carted off the field after suffering an awkward and ugly knee injury on the third play of the game.
An already flat crowd grew even more silent after Murray went down. Backup Colt McCoy settled things as the wily veteran had done in earlier this season when Murray rehabbed a hamstring injury.
He marched the Cardinals into scoring position — his 21-yard connection to Corey Clement the big play — but Matt Prater’s 50-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left.
Mac Jones opened his first drive with a 14-yard crosser to DeVante Parker, but the offense couldn’t build off that spark.
Two incompletions sandwiched by a Trent Brown false start and New England had to give the ball right back to their hosts.
A holding penalty forced the Cardinals to set up shop on their 4, but James Conner dug them out of that hole with a 23-yard run on first down. Though they couldn’t maintain momentum, they successfully flipped the field courtesy of a 53-yard Andy Lee punt and a holding penalty that forced the Patriots to their 3.
It was a short and costly possession for New England, which lost Parker (head) and Rhamondre Stevenson (ankle) within a span of four plays. Stevenson came back briefly before being ruled out.
To add insult to the injuries, Jones was picked off by Isaiah Simmons and the Cardinals capitalized when Prater connected on a 33-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
Jones and the Patriots responded, however, with a couple of rookies performing admirably as the next baby-faced men up.
New England chewed up 75 yards in eight plays, with Harris gaining 32 on three carries, including a 14-yarder for his first touchdown and a 7-3 lead. Tyquan Thornton, who replaced Parker, had two catches for 15 yards on the drive.
The Cardinals trimmed the lead to 7-6 (Prater from 32 yards) on a 56-yard drive, most of which came on a 39-yard pass interference penalty on Jonathan Jones.
Following a flat Patriots drive, the Cardinals retook the lead when Conner bullied his way through the heart of the defense on a 10-yard scoring run to cap a seven-play, 63-yard journey.
The Patriots responded with an abysmal drive, losing 11 yards in three plays before punting again.
The Cardinals reciprocated — Jahlani Tavai’s pass breakup on fourth down was the key — and the visitors got one more first half crack and they cashed in, with Nick Folk splitting the uprights from 51 yards to trim the Arizona lead to 13-10 at the break.
New England built on that momentum out of the locker room and this time it was another rookie runner providing the spark.
With Stevenson shelved for the second half, Pierre Strong ripped off a 44-yard run on a delayed hand off, setting the stage for Folk’s 23-yarder that tied it at 13.
“[Tavai’s tip] flipped it, you know," said Henry. “We score before halftime and scored again after halftime. I wish we would’ve got a touchdown of those, but just good to get points and get things flowing."
The Patriots again stopped the Cardinals on fourth down (McCoy overthrew Hollywood Brown down the seam) but a three and out followed.
Then the New England defense stepped up.
McCoy hit DeAndre Hopkins but Kyle Dugger hit Hopkins and he coughed up the ball. Raekwon McMillan scooped it up and raced 23 yards untouched for the go-ahead score at 20-13.
“Kyle Dugger made an amazing play on the ball, got it off him, and I saw the ball along the sideline, and I was like, Aw, shot, I’ve got to get it," said McMillan. “I’ve got to pick the ball up before I get out of bounds. I was looking back, and it was only me and a lineman. I said, ‘I’ve got to beat the lineman. If I can’t beat the lineman, then I shouldn’t be out here.’ "
Belichick called it a “heads up play.”
Arizona played giveaway again on the ensuing drive, with Josh Uche (three sacks) smacking McCoy’s arm on a throw that ended up as Marcus Jones’s first career interception.
The Patriots made it hurt, opening the fourth quarter minutes later with a Jones-to-Henry 39-yard seam shot to the Arizona 3. One play later, Strong rumbled in for his first TD and a 27-13 lead.
“Our defense did a pretty good job tonight," said Belichick. “We got a couple of red area stops and we didn’t give them much in the second half."
Read more about the Patriots’ win over the Cardinals
- Instant Analysis: The Patriots were hardly challenged by the Cardinals, but a convincing road win was just what they needed
- Shaughnessy: It wasn’t the prettiest football in a place filled with Patriots lore, but Mac Jones and Co. remain in the playoff chase
- In a game of really hard knocks, rookies Kevin Harris and Pierre Strong carried the ball for Patriots in victory over Cardinals
- A win, but at a price: Patriots Rhamondre Stevenson, DeVante Parker, Jack Jones exit with injuries vs. Cardinals
- How it happened: Behind defense, New England scores 20 unanswered points to jump back into playoff race
- Cardinals QB Kyler Murray carted off vs. Patriots, injury ‘doesn’t look good’ according to Kliff Kingsbury
- ESPN pregame show questions Bill Belichick, and sheds more light on Matt Patricia-Mac Jones relationship
Jim McBride can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.