FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — In the aftermath of the New England Patriots‘ last-second 20-17 win Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, quarterback Cam Newton shared a celebratory embrace with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels but looked discouraged.
“I’m sorry, man,” he seemed to say.
Newton’s fourth-quarter interception nearly cost the Patriots the game, but an impressive defensive stop and missed 45-yard field goal by Cardinals kicker Zane Gonzalez gave him a second chance. Newton appeared to be taking ownership of the miscue as he spoke to McDaniels, which is the type of accountability that has earned him respect throughout the organization.
It might also explain why coach Bill Belichick shrugged off a postgame question on whether he’s sticking with Newton as his starter despite one of the worst passing performances in franchise history — 9-of-18 for 84 yards, with two picks.
“Cam threw for 350 [yards] last week,” Belichick said, as his 5-6 team looks ahead to Sunday’s road game against the Los Angeles Chargers (3-8). “The most important thing is we made the plays we needed to make to win. That’s what the goal will be every week.”
Newton’s biggest play came with his legs when he ran 14 yards on third-and-13 on the game-winning drive. Running back James White pointed out that the Cardinals were “blitzing the house” and Newton “gave us the boost to win it.”
But bigger-picture questions loom about whether the Newton-led offense can produce enough points on a consistent basis to be a legitimate threat over the final five games of the regular season — on the road against the Chargers, Rams and Dolphins, then finishing at home against the Bills and Jets — and possibly into the playoffs if they unexpectedly catch fire.
The Patriots are averaging 19.3 points per game. This is a long way from some of the potent Tom Brady-led units in the past, such as the 2007 edition that averaged 36.8.
Because of this, the Patriots have to play a specific style to give themselves the greatest chance at success: ball control, turnover free, complementing an up-and-down defense and pretty strong special-teams units.
Consider some of their struggles on Sunday:
They won despite having three players catch a pass, and two finish with plus-1 receiving yards (White had minus-1 yards). According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it is the first time the Patriots had three players or fewer with a catch since Oct. 30, 1988, against the Chicago Bears (a 30-7 win).
According to Elias Sports, it is also the first time two Patriots had plus-1 receiving yards in a non-strike game since Dec. 4, 1983, against the New Orleans Saints — when the Patriots won 7-0 in a contest with snow, sleet and 20 mph winds. The Patriots completed three passes for 30 yards that day, all to wide receiver Stanley Morgan.
In fairness to Newton, it isn’t as if he’s throwing to a highly touted receiving corps, and the void at tight end is gaping at times.
Is there any reason to think things could be different over the final five games?
Here are a few things that could provide a spark:
Julian Edelman‘s return: The veteran wide receiver remains on injured reserve, but Belichick said last week that Edelman continues to be heading in the right direction. Could he be ready for a return? The Patriots would have to tread lightly with his playing time, but even if he’s on the field just on third downs — like the old Danny Amendola role — that could be significant.
Integrating Devin Asiasi into the mix at tight end: The third-round pick from UCLA began practicing last week after missing three games on injured reserve, and even if it’s in a niche role, tapping into his ability to run a seam route would provide more upside at the position.
Consider J.J. Taylor at running back: While running backs coach Ivan Fears seemed to hint Taylor is being viewed as more of a future option, it was hard to miss the juice he brought to the attack in a Week 3 win against the Raiders. The Patriots’ “pony” grouping of two running backs could be a good fit to see if Taylor might add a spark.
See more from Donte Moncrief: It’s hard to imagine the Patriots don’t sign Moncrief to their active roster after he was elevated from the practice squad for the second consecutive week and had a 53-yard kickoff return. Perhaps reducing some of N’Keal Harry‘s snaps and seeing how Moncrief looks is something to consider.