Welcome to the Unconventional Review, an instant reaction to standouts, stats, and story lines from the Patriots’ most recent game . . .
The Patriots got what they needed. And they got it in part from players we never would have expected.
Rookie running backs Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris each ran for a touchdown, and the Patriots won a battle of attrition against a Cardinals team that could not overcome losing starting quarterback Kyler Murray to a knee injury on the third play of the game.
The Patriots endured injuries themselves, losing running back Rhamondre Stevenson and receiver DeVante Parker for the game. But the Patriots got a ferocious performance from their defense, which teed off on backup Colt McCoy in the second half, and an unexpected boost from the lower segments of the depth chart.
Strong and Harris, who had combined for five NFL carries coming in, teamed up to carry the ball 13 times for 96 yards and two scores. And in Parker’s absence, long-term Matt Patricia doghouse resident Kendrick Bourne could not be kept off the field, and he came up with five catches for 47 yards while making multiple helpful blocks in the running game.
It wasn’t pretty even if you squint, but it was necessary, and so this flawed but feisty team remains in the thick of the AFC wild-card race.
Some further thoughts, upon immediate review . . .
Three players who were worth watching
Players suggested in the Unconventional Preview: DeAndre Hopkins, Budda Baker, Rhamondre Stevenson.
Marcus Jones: The Patriots have featured some extraordinarily versatile players during Bill Belichick’s 23 seasons as head coach. Troy Brown. Julian Edelman. Matthew Slater if you took him seriously as a wide receiver. But Jones, the speedy fourth-round pick out of Houston, might ultimately have the most varied applicable skill-set of any Patriot we’ve seen. He did pretty much everything other than, oh, play a series at right tackle and take a turn or two as the long-snapper. Jones hauled in a catch for 12 yards on the Patriots’ second possession – his third in the past two games, which includes a 48-yard touchdown on Dec. 1 against the Bills. He picked off a pass with just over a minute left in the third quarter, and even delivered a huge hit in the same quarter on Cardinals tight end Trey McBride, who outweighs Jones by 75 pounds. And he was a threat as always in the return game.
Raekwon McMillan: And the winner of Monday’s night’s “Right Place at the Right Time” Patriots/Dundie award is … well, obviously it’s the Patriots’ backup inside linebacker. Kind of gave that away already, huh? McMillan is worthy , however, after his 23-yard touchdown return of a DeAndre Hopkins fumble gave the Patriots a 20-13 lead with 5:32 left in the third quarter. McMillan got the crucial scoop-and-score due to the work of safety Kyle Dugger, who had the presence of mind to knock the ball loose from DeAndre Hopkins’s casual one-handed grip. Walter Payton could get away with carrying the ball that way, but list of others who can claim the same is short.
Josh Uche: In recent weeks, I’ve been calling the Patriots’ ascending sack machine the Don Blackmon to Matthew Judon’s Andre Tippett. That is meant as high praise since Blackmon is one of the most unsung quality Patriot defensive players of all-time. But I’m starting to think that if Uche keeps playing this way, such praise might not be high enough. The Patriots had six sacks Monday. Uche collected three, all in the second half, giving him 10 on the season. That’s already more than Blackmon had the best season of his abbreviated career — he finished with 8.5 in 1985. Incredibly, all 10 of Uche’s sacks have come over the last six games. He’s 4.5 behind Judon, whose 14.5 lead the NFL. What a breakthrough.
Grievance of the game
Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph did his part to give sports radio a juicy topic on Wednesday, noting extreme offensive conservatism, then adding correctly, “It’s like a defensive guy’s calling offense.” A defensive guy is calling the offense, of course, and Matt Patricia’s stint as de facto offensive coordinator has been as sloppy as it is basic.
But no job title can explain Patricia’s thinking (or lack thereof) with 10 seconds left in the first half. With the Patriots trailing, 13-7, and possessing the ball at the Arizona 28, Patricia inexplicably called a running play. Jones and Harris could not connect on the handoff – remember, Belichick had noted in October that Harris had ball-security issues to overcome – and only Jones’s hustle to recover the loose football prevented disaster. The Patriots ended up with three points after Nick Folk drilled a 51-yard field goal, so the drive was salvaged.
But seriously … he really called a running play? In that spot? Not even the late Ernie Zampese, the master of the third-and-7 draw play, would have done that back in the Drew Bledsoe/Pete Carroll years.
Three notes scribbled in the margins
Predicted score: Patriots 20, Cardinals 17
Final score: Patriots 27, Cardinals 13
Call this a spare grievance if you want, but ESPN kept making the annoying decision to cut away from Mac Jones when his frustration with Patricia or someone on the Patriots’ sideline was becoming more and more obvious early in the third quarter. Show us the rage. It’s one Brady-like thing about him, and all of New England was on his side at the time … Hunter Henry, big-play threat? The often underutilized tight end sure was that a couple of times Monday. Henry made a 30-yard catch-and-run in the final minute of the first half, then topped that with a 39-yarder down the right seam on the first play of the fourth quarter, which set up Strong’s 3-yard touchdown run … Hopkins, who finished with a fairly modest seven catches for 79 yards, made a ridiculous one-handed snag in the second quarter, but he was about two long strides out of the back of the end zone. “This is the best catch you’ll ever see that doesn’t count,’’ said Troy Aikman on ESPN’s broadcast.
Read more about the Patriots’ win over the Cardinals
- 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
- The Patriots were hardly challenged by the Cardinals, but a convincing road win was just what they needed
- Sullivan: Nelson Agholor was looking out for teammate DeVante Parker. Why didn’t the NFL’s concussion spotter see what Agholor clearly did?
- 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