The New England Patriots truly have reached must-win territory.
At 4-6, the Patriots almost certainly would need to win each of their final six games to even have a chance of qualifying for the NFL playoffs.
That would not be an unprecedented accomplishment, but the odds are stacked squarely against Bill Belichick’s squad. Since the NFL schedule expanded to 16 games in 1978, a total of 203 teams have started 4-6, and just five have won out.
A remarkable late-season run would need to start Sunday against Kliff Kingsbury, Kyler Murray and the much-improved Arizona Cardinals.
Time: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
Location: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.
The 6-4 Cardinals entered the weekend as two-point road favorites. It’s the first time the Patriots have been underdogs in back-to-back home games since 2001. (They beat the Baltimore Ravens as seven-point ‘dogs in Week 10.)
The last Patriots-Cardinals meeting came in the 2016 season opener. Jimmy Garoppolo led New England to an upset victory in his first NFL start.
This will be Arizona’s first visit to Foxboro since 2012, when the Patriots lost to Kevin Kolb as 13 1/2-point favorites after Stephen Gostkowski missed a last-second field goal. It’ll also be Kingsbury’s first game back in New England since his one-year stint as a Patriots quarterback ended in 2004.
New England is 4-6 against the spread this season. Arizona is 5-5 ATS.
The Patriots had their two-game win streak snapped last Sunday with a 27-20 road loss to the Houston Texans.
Cam Newton enjoyed one of his best passing performances as a Patriot, but New England’s defense wilted against quarterback Deshaun Watson, who accounted for 380 of Houston’s 399 yards in the win.
Newton drove the Patriots deep into Texans territory in the final minutes but was overrun by Houston defenders on a fourth-down conversion attempt. It was Newton’s fourth failed comeback attempt of the season.
The Cardinals lost to the Seattle Seahawks 28-21 on “Thursday Night Football.” Three of Arizona’s four losses this season have been by seven points or fewer.
Quarterback Kyler Murray ran for a season-low 15 yards and averaged just 6.4 yards per pass attempt — his lowest mark since Week 4 — while playing through a shoulder injury. That injury limited Murray in practice this week, but he was removed from the Cardinals’ injury report Friday, clearing him to play.
The Patriots ruled out starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn (knee). Veteran Jermaine Eluemunor and rookie Justin Herron (eligible to return from injured reserve) are the leading candidates to start in his place.
Running back Rex Burkhead, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Houston game, also was ruled out and likely will be placed on IR this weekend.
Thirteen Patriots players are listed as questionable for Sunday:
LB Ja’Whaun Bentley (groin)
OLB Tashawn Bower (illness)
DT Adam Butler (shoulder)
DT Byron Cowart (back)
DT Carl Davis (concussion)
S Kyle Dugger (toe)
K Nick Folk (back)
CB Stephon Gilmore (hand)
WR N’Keal Harry (shoulder)
TE Ryan Izzo (hamstring, hand)
G Shaq Mason (calf)
ST Matthew Slater (knee)
RB J.J. Taylor (quad)
Davis sat out two practices this week, including Friday’s, putting his status in doubt.
The Cardinals removed Murray, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and tight end Maxx Williams from their injury report Friday:
TE Darrell Daniels (ankle)
DL Josh Mauro (hamstring)
S Jalen Thompson (ankle)
OL Justin Murray (hand)
S Charles Washington (groin)
Arizona also will be without receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Trent Sherfield and safety Deionte Thompson, all of whom were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list this week. This will be just the seventh game Fitzgerald has missed in his NFL career and his first since 2014.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Cam Newton, Patriots quarterback
One angle we’ll be watching this week is how offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels handles the passing game. After weeks of largely conservative play-calling, McDaniels opened things up in the second half against Houston, and Newton thrived, going 8-for-8 for 207 yards on aimed passes that traveled more than 10 yards downfield.
The Patriots’ air attack leaned more on screen passes and other short throws in the first half, and their offense sputtered. We’ll see if McDaniels lets Newton — who’s gone four straight games without an interception — sling it earlier against Arizona.
Kyler Murray, Cardinals quarterback
For the third straight week, the Patriots will face a dynamic dual-threat quarterback. Murray is a magician with the ball in his hands, using his unrivaled speed and quickness to extend plays and carve up defenses on designed QB runs. The 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year leads all NFL rushers in yards per carry this season (6.7) and trails only Dalvin Cook and Antonio Gibson in rushing touchdowns (10).
Murray isn’t on Watson’s level as a passer, but he’s shown significant improvement in that area, as well, and plays in an offense that boasts a talented array of pass-catchers. Containing him will be a priority for New England’s D.
The Patriots are 25-2 in their last 27 games against first- or second-year starting QBs but 1-2 in their last three, losing to Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson last season and Denver’s Drew Lock in Week 2.
Kyle Dugger, Patriots safety
Part of New England’s strategy against Jackson two weeks ago was deploying Dugger (and fellow hybrid safety Adrian Phillips) as overhang players to combat outside runs. That plan worked against Jackson (55 yards on 11 carries) and could be useful against Murray, as well.
Dugger’s uncommon mix of size and athleticism have made him a versatile and valuable run defender.
“He’s a bigger body, he’s a physical player, so getting him down there definitely helps our defense, especially on the end of the line of scrimmage in terms of his athleticism and kind of dealing with these mobile guys,” outside linebackers coach/defensive play-caller Steve Belichick said Friday.
“If he gets blocked in the run game, he’s able to defeat those blocks, and if the quarterback gets out there outside, he’s athletic enough to make those plays. He’s definitely shown up in that regard.”
Dugger, New England’s top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, still needs to clean up his pass coverage. After being burned several times by Texans tight ends, he acknowledged this week that covering tight ends man-to-man is “brand new” for him. Dugger mostly played as a deep safety at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne and should improve as he accumulates experience.
DeAndre Hopkins, Cardinals
Expect to see a battle between Hopkins and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who essentially confirmed he’ll be tasked with covering Arizona’s No. 1 wideout. Hopkins’ production hasn’t slowed since his much-maligned trade from the Texans; the four-time Pro Bowler leads the NFL in receiving yards (912), ranks third in catches (72) and has five 100-yard games on his record this season.
The Patriots traditionally have done a solid job of limiting Hopkins, however. They’ve never erased him in any of their six all-time meetings, but Hopkins never has tallied more than 78 receiving yards against New England’s secondary. He’s gone over 80 yards 55 times in his career.
Sony Michel, Patriots running back
Michel is expected to be active Sunday for the first time since Week 3. The 2018 first-round draft pick has missed the last seven games with a quad injury, and it’s unclear what his role will be as he returns.
Michel certainly won’t be a 1-for-1 replacement for the versatile Burkhead, and Damien Harris deserves to keep his lead back role based on his performance these last seven weeks (5.4 yards per carry, tied for fifth-best in the NFL). But someone will need to pick up the slack for Burkhead, who was in the midst of a career year before his injury.