By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The New England Patriots have used up just about all of their room for error this year. If they want to keep their remote postseason chances alive, they’re going to have to play nearly perfect from here on out.
That effort will begin Sunday afternoon, when the Arizona Cardinals visit Gillette Stadium.
The Cardinals enter Sunday’s game looking to avoid trouble of their own. They lost last weekend in Seattle, dropping their record to 6-4. They’re currently hanging on to the third and final wild-card spot in the NFC, but another loss would welcome Chicago (5-5), Minnesota (4-6) and San Francisco (4-60) into the picture.
At 4-6, the Patriots’ position is a bit more dire, as they’re in 11th place in the AFC, with three teams standing between them and the last wild-card spot.
Clearly, both teams will be playing a desperate brand of football come Sunday afternoon. Here’s what to watch for.
Gilmore vs. DHop
Every now and then you get the best of the best going against the best of the best. This is one of those times.
It comes in the form of DeAndre Hopkins lining up against Stephon Gilmore, pitting one of the best receivers on earth against the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
Gilmore all but announced that he’ll be covering Hopkins when he said in a radio interview this week:
Stephon Gilmore when asked which Cardinals Wide Receiver he will be covering this weekend: "I think everybody knows"
— Zolak & Bertrand (@ZoandBertrand) November 25, 2020
These two went up against each other last year, when Hopkins was still with the Texans. Hopkins was held to five catches on 64 yards, though not all of those receptions came when matched up in man coverage against Hopkins. The receiver did notably beat Gilmore on this first-down pickup, though:
Gilmore has not necessarily performed at his All-Pro level this season, as he’s dealt with COVID-19 and a knee injury. This game and matchup mark an opportunity to show that he can still count himself among the best corners in the league.
It’s kind of a cruel joke that the Patriots’ defense was scheduled to get Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, and Kyler Murray in consecutive weeks. Nevertheless, that is the hand they’ve been dealt.
All three QBs are dangerous in their own right, but they’re all unique. In the case of Murray, he might be the speediest QB the league has ever seen. As a result, the young man already has 1,163 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns in his 26 games as a pro. Even if the right defense is dialed up and defenders are in the right position, actually stopping Murray from breaking off a big gain can be a mighty challenge.
And he’s not strictly one-dimensional, either. Though his passing numbers aren’t gaudy, his 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions this year (as well as his 7.5-yard average per pass attempt) force defenses to remain honest with regard to the passing threat.
Of course, Murray’s ability will be greatly impacted by how well his shoulder feels. He suffered an injury early last week in Seattle, and it seemed to greatly impact his accuracy. If his throws are inconsistent once again come Sunday, it may make things a little easier for the New England defense to try to limit the damage.
Sony’s Return/Cam On The Ground
Bill Belichick gave the green light for a Sony Michel return, so the third-year back should see his first action since Week 3.
While everyone in New England has been impressed by Damien Harris during Michel’s absence, the second-year back has been battling a number of injuries and could probably use a breather. And with Rex Burkhead gone for the year with a knee injury, Michel should be able to get some run.
The opportunity to run free will be there for Michel, as the Cardinals rank 26th in rushing yards allowed per attempt and 23rd in rushing yards allowed per game.
But the run game should also be carried by Cam Newton, as the Cardinals have had problems stopping mobile quarterbacks this year. Russell Wilson rushed for 126 yards on 16 carries against them, Teddy Bridgewater ran for 32 yards and a touchdown on six carries, Josh Allen ran for 38 yards on just seven carries, and Tua Tagovailoa ran for 35 yards on seven carries.
Newton has had an underwhelming season through the air but remains a threat on the ground. He and Michel could be in line for a repeat of the Week 3 win over the Raiders, when they ran wild.
While all eyes will be on the game itself, save some of your peripheral vision for the men in stripes. Penalties could be important in this one.
That’s because the Cardinals commit a lot of penalties. A whole lot of penalties. More than any other team in the NFL, in fact. They’ve been penalized 94 times for 634 yards this season. They were hit with 10 penalties for 115 yards in last week’s loss in Seattle, giving the Cardinals their third double-digit penalty game of the season.
The Patriots are still the league’s least-penalized team, though that’s in large part to their exceptionally clean start to the year. They were hit with seven penalties for 55 yards last week during their loss in Houston, which was their second game in three weeks in which they got themselves into penalty trouble. (They also were flagged six times for 81 yards vs. the Jets.)
Bill Vinovich will be in charge behind the line of scrimmage in this one. A flag-happy day could spell trouble for the visitors.