Curran: The stakes are high for Belichick, Patriots vs. Cardinals

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Of all the “must-win” games we’ve seen in the last two decades, Monday’s game at Arizona is one of the mustiest.  

Normally, my eyes involuntarily roll when I hear “must win.” Because my next question is, “Or what?” It’s not like the franchise is going to be disbanded, right? I figure that, until a loss means you are mathematically eliminated from contending for a title, “must-win” does not apply.

So why does this game against a 4-8 Cardinals team qualify as a “must win” if the Patriots could still finish the season 10-7 even with a loss?

Because of what a loss would represent. A third-straight, post-Thanksgiving loss. A failure against what’s perceived as a lesser opponent with the final four games against teams that are more talented than the Patriots.

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The potential for a seven-game skid to the finish line which would mean that – for the fourth-straight season – the once-mighty Patriots had become late-season doormats. It would also be the fifth-straight prime-time loss for the Patriots going back to last year.

So what we have, friends, is one of them there “existential” threats. The Patriots COULD lose in Arizona and still reel off wins against the Raiders, Bengals, Dolphins and Bills (combined record of the last three currently 25-11).

But the tenor around the team after the Patriots' last game – a flat-line performance against the Bills in the most important game of the year – signaled frustration had moved to exasperation. Losing to the Cardinals could easily usher in resignation.

Yeah, they’re 6-6. But this is the luggage the Patriots have piled up to this point. (Deep breath) incompetency of the offense, leaks sprung on special teams, an inability to handle elite receivers and dual-threat quarterbacks, lamebrained penalties, failures to play to the whistle, underperformance of the offensive line, lack of production (and usage) of high-priced skill position players, situational gaffes, clock mismanagement, individual regression, being outclassed by playoff-level teams and – most troublingly – players pleading for the offensive coaches to give them a chance to fight to the end.

They don’t play smart. They don’t play clean. They aren’t hard to figure out. For two decades, the Patriots would go into games like this one knowing they could file their nails and wait for their moronic opponent’s misstep. When they saw it, they’d stand, walk across the room, snap a neck (figuratively), sigh, move on to the next week.

The Patriots are often the moronic opponent these days.

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If they can’t beat Arizona which is allowing 26.8 points per game (31st), has the league’s worst red zone defense, the fourth-worst third-down defense and are fourth-worst in sacks-per-attempt.

Failing to outscore Arizona would put a bright-red circle around a fact that’s already bold-faced, underlined and highlighted. That Bill Belichick’s decision to let Matt Patricia be the offensive architect was a horrible idea. Everyone suspected it might be but deferred to Belichick because of resume, legacy, brainpower, yadda, yadda, yadda.

So even skepticism was expressed with a “Ya never know. Might work. He is Bill Belichick.”

Even Robert Kraft said in March that Bill’s earned the right to run it unconventionally. We can ask but, really, who are we to ask? Especially when we know that we’ll get a withering stare and a smirk from the podium that all but screams, “Who are you to ask?”

But reality is that you can only wave everyone away and say, “Don’t worry. I got it …” and then have it clearly demonstrated that you, in fact, don’t “got it.”

Eventually, they don’t let you say, “Don’t worry, I got it…” anymore.

Explanations are requested. Concrete plans are required. Suggestions are made. Encouragement for perhaps getting some more outside voices, new sets of eyes and ears is offered. Resistance to any or all of that might be problematic.

All of that isn’t going to happen on Tuesday morning if the Patriots don’t win. But it doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to grasp where the team will be mentally if they do lose and are then facing the toughest four-game stretch of the season. Bad spot.

So how to avoid the bad spot? How, if you are Belichick, do you avoid postseason “hard conversations” and suggestions that you ran the damn boat up on the rocks? You win. One game at a time. Starting Monday night.

If you do it right, you make Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph regret not just sneering at Matt Patricia’s playcalling acumen but deciding to work in pro football at all.

You neutralize Nuk Hopkins, sack Kyler Murray about seven times, play penalty-free, find the end zone repeatedly and blow doors on a prime-time opponent the way the Bills and Bears did to you this year.

You build some momentum heading into Vegas then put a beating on Josh McDaniels that makes him wish he took the Indy job in 2018.

Then you’re 8-6 and the NFL world has been reminded that you remain Bill F------ Belichick and you have two fistfuls of rings that explain why you can put whoever you want in charge of your offense because – quite frankly – you will figure it out.

I got the sense late in the week that it’s too early to imagine the Patriots without Bill Belichick as their head coach. But it’s not too early to imagine Bill Belichick being gently told that “Cuz I said so…” and “Just doing what’s best for the football team…” won’t suffice if this season continues in the direction its currently headed.

Cardinals 29, Patriots 27

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