FOXBORO — Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson embarrassed them last week.
And he wasn’t alone. There have been several other quarterbacks and offenses that have torched the Patriots defense this season,
And Sunday, it looked like Kyler Murray’s turn.
Murray and the Cardinals’ offense seemed like they were going to be next to carve up Bill Belichick’s defenders. In the first quarter, the Cards scored on a short field on their first possession, kicked a field goal on their next after a 12-play drive, and were up 10-0 in no time.
Only, after a couple shaky series, the roles reversed.
The Patriots defense finally came to play. It made a stand. Several of them, in fact, but none more important than the goal-line stand before halftime.
The whole complexion of the game changed, with Kenyan Drake stuffed on the play with just a yard to gain.
“It was huge for us to be able to go out there and get the goal-line stand. You go in to halftime, now everybody’s amped up,” said Patriots safety Adrian Phillips, who had an interception. “That’s exactly what we needed for our team. That was a confidence-builder and we knew we could do it. We just haven’t been doing it in the past and we finally got it done today. It just boosted our confidence even more.”
The Cardinals faced fourth-and-inches after KeeSean Johnson took a Murray pass on a third-and-8, and advanced it just short of the goal line, after officials ruled he hadn’t broken the plane on replay.
There was three seconds left before halftime, and head coach Kliff Kingsbury, holding a 10-7 lead at the time, went for it.
Drake went up the middle and was stuffed by linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley and newcomer Akeem Spence, who was making his debut as a Patriot.
So no points for the visitors.
Suddenly, momentum was back on the Patriots’ side, and it showed in the second half.
The stinginess continued, allowing only one more score, while also holding the Cardinals to a missed field goal try late in the game.
But it all goes back to the play that ended the half.
Members of the offense also applauded the defense, citing the stop.
“That was big. That was extremely big,” said quarterback Cam Newton. “For us to play with complementary football, playing it later on in the season, which we’re going to need more of moving forward. Offensively we didn’t have our best game, but the defense kind of picked up the slack as well as the special teams.”
While it was a collective effort, there were plenty of defensive stars. Bentley had a team-leading 13 tackles, none more important than the one on the goal line.
Stephon Gilmore also did a good job marking Cardinals star DeAndre Hopkins, holding him to just 5 catches for 55 yards and keeping him out of the end zone.
Then, there was defensive lineman Adam Butler.
Coming back after a week off due to injury, he was immense in the game, making plays all over the field. He finished with five tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss, and three quarterback hits. He was a pain in Murray’s backside all game.
“Just going into this game, I felt like it was important to get vertical in the pocket and make him [Murray] feel uncomfortable,” said Butler. “So, my goal the entire game was to affect him. You know, I’m just glad everything worked out.”
The Cardinals (6-for-14) were terrific at converting on third down, but that was early in the game. Later on, the Patriots stood tall. Murray finished the game completing 23 of 34 passes for just 170 yards. He threw a pick on a tipped ball, and was sacked twice.
He also wasn’t all that impactful running the football, with five carries for 31 yards.
“I think they were just, you know, whenever, obviously the zone-read opportunities, they were just playing me,” said Murray. “Made me hand it off. I mean, it is what it is. My read is to hand it off if they play me, and that’s what I had to do.”
Drake managed 78 yards on 22 carries, but for the most part, the Pats kept the running game in check.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was pleased with the effort, also crediting son Stephen, the defensive play-caller, with making adjustments.
But nothing topped the play on the goal line.
“The mindset is just to not get moved. Just don’t get moved, don’t lose ground and fight to the end of the whistle,” said Butler. “I mean, the goal is to tackle the guy with the ball, but ultimately, in the trenches it’s a man-whooping-man game. Like I said, the goal is just to not get moved off the line of scrimmage.”
Time was called, and Belichick huddled with his son, as well as cornerback Jason McCourty, before the Cardinals made the attempt.
“Obviously, our defensive line did a good job of controlling the line of scrimmage,” said Belichick. “I think Bentley scraped and made the tackle, a strong tackle to keep Drake out. There’s a lot of things to cover down there, multiple runs, the quarterback is a potential runner. Hopkins is out there. There were several things that, depending on how they aligned, several things we were ready for.”
Including a classic run up the middle to gain an inch.
Only, it didn’t happen.
“That stop was everything for us,” said James White.