Two of the NFL's premier rushing quarterbacks are set to face off in Foxborough
Although the former's career is on the rise while the latter's is on the decline, this cross-conference matchup at Gillette Stadium should be fascinating because of the unique ways each quarterback shapes his respective offense.
While both quarterbacks are known for their running ability, they have very different games. Murray, a 5-foot-10, 207-pound sparkplug, is 11th in the NFL in rushing, tops among quarterbacks, thanks to his scrambling ability, game-breaking speed and slippery running style. Newton, a tank at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, remains the game's best short-yardage weapon and is beyond dangerous on designed runs.
If either team is going to make a playoff run, it will come down to quarterback play.
At 6-4, the Cardinals have a much better shot, even after missing on a chance to take over first place in the NFC West last Thursday in a 28-21 loss to the Seahawks. They are currently in the No. 7 seed and have four other teams within two games of them for the final playoff spot.
New England is two games out of the final AFC wild-card spot at 4-6 but has a plausible path to the playoffs with several easy opponents (Chargers, Jets) and key division competition (Dolphins, Jets) remaining on the schedule. The Patriots have struggled on the road (1-4) but mostly been fine at home (3-2).
So which former top pick and Heisman Trophy winner will come out on top Sunday? This game will tell us plenty about both playoff hopefuls.
Arizona at New England
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 29 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Cardinals -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Patriots contain Kyler Murray?
The Seahawks showed the blueprint for beating the Cardinals last week, even with the worst pass defense in the league. They dialed up the pressure on Murray and kept him from beating them with big passes — he had only 6.8 intended air yards per attempt — while completely shutting him down in the run game.
Stopping Murray from running is easier said than done, especially for a Patriots defense that has been ravaged by opt-outs and injuries. In the last two weeks, Deshaun Watson picked up 36 yards and a touchdown on six carries and Lamar Jackson registered 55 yards on 11 carries against New England. Holding Murray to 15 yards on five carries as the Seahawks did would be a massive ask.
What might be easier is slowing down the passing game. Stephon Gilmore returned from a knee injury last weekend and has the ability to take DeAndre Hopkins out of the game for a second straight week. They've also been able to get away with allowing a league-high 8.7 ypa by picking off 11 passes, tied for the fourth-most in the NFL.
One thing worth keeping an eye on is Murray's health. The second-year signal-caller sustained an AC joint sprain in his throwing shoulder and was visibly in pain during his last game. He's not expected to miss any time, but it could affect his passing, especially on deep balls.
2. Will any Patriots pass-catchers emerge?
New England has had trouble developing a receiver other than Julian Edelman for much of the last decade, and with the 34-year-old's ineffectiveness and injuries this season, that problem hasn't gotten any better. The Patriots have had to make do with a rotating cast of receivers just to make the offense functional.
For a moment, it looked like Jakobi Meyers might be ready to break out. The 23-year-old didn't get his first start until Week 8 but racked up 23 catches on 31 targets for 286 yards over the next three weeks. In the last game, however, he got only three targets and caught them all for 38 yards.
There was similar optimism for 2019 first-rounder N'Keal Harry after he was targeted 18 times in the first two weeks and brought in 13 for 111 yards. But he received only 14 total targets in his next five games — until he led all receivers with eight targets (five catches, 41 yards) against Houston.
Newton's favorite target this season has been Damiere Byrd, a journeyman who briefly played with him at Carolina. He racked up a career-high 132 receiving yards last week along with his first touchdown. But he has only 32 catches for 469 yards on the season.
Figuring out if any receivers are long-term keepers is crucial for the Patriots, but New England is a good bet to keep spreading it around on Sunday. With Rex Burkhead out with a knee injury, James White should get even more action. But it is hard to predict which receivers Newton will look to, and there will be no clear-cut No. 1 option for Patrick Peterson to focus on.
3. Can New England keep Cam Newton upright?
This has been the question all season long for the Patriots, as their O-line has been questionable for the first time in recent memory with the retirement of key assistant Dante Scarnecchia. Newton has been injury-prone lately, and keeping him healthy and his jersey clean is of utmost importance.
In the Patriots' four losses, he has been sacked only five total times, and during their brief two-game winning streak, opponents got to him only once. But in their six losses, he's taken 10 sacks. The Cardinals are tied for 11th in the league with 25 sacks but have registered three in two of their three games since their bye.
Keep an eye on linebacker Haason Reddick, who has eight TFLs and three sacks since moving into the starting lineup in Week 6. He's part of a deep defense that includes 15 players with at least one sack and seven with multiple sacks.
New England will be keeping an eye on the health of left tackle Isaiah Wynn, who left last week's game with a right leg injury. The Pats are already starting rookie sixth-rounder Michael Onwenu at right tackle and could be even more vulnerable without their sturdy blind-side tackle.
It's shocking, but the Patriots have lost five of their last nine games at Gillette Stadium. Their home-field advantage isn't what it used to be, especially without fans in the stadium. Playing at 11 a.m. body time won't be an easy lift for the Cardinals, though, even if they have a half-bye coming off their TNF game.
New England has a path to keeping its season alive, and it starts with slowing Kliff Kingsbury's high-powered offense. The Patriots have a gameplan to follow after watching Seattle's narrow win last week, and now they just need to follow through and hope they have enough horses. This has the makings of one of the best games on Sunday.
Prediction: Cardinals 28, Patriots 27