Even as the path to the postseason grows more perilous by the day, the New England Patriots have at least a few things to feel good about after last week's win over the Arizona Cardinals.
The defense against Kyler Murray? It was surprisingly decent. The special teams groups that Bill Belichick devotes so much attention to? They were sublime Sunday.
Cam Newton and the offense? Now that's another story.
Newton was, simply put, horrendous in the 20-17 victory. He completed 9 of 18 passes for 84 yards and threw two interceptions, resulting in a passer rating of 23.6. It was the worst mark in a career for Newton that's now spanned 142 starts between the regular and postseason over 10 years; it was the worst by a Patriots starter since Tom Brady recorded a 22.5 rating in New England's season opening 31-0 loss at Buffalo in 2003.
It's hard to say which interception for Newton was worse: his first one, which came on his very first drop back of the game, the result of yet another ball tipped at the line of scrimmage; or his second, which came in the fourth quarter, in which he stared down a well-covered Damiere Byrd and threw it right at Cardinals corner Dre Kirkpatrick anyways.
The Patriots and Newton were in turn bailed out by Arizona kicker Zane Gonzalez missing a 45-yard field goal, but the quarterback didn't do much with his arm on New England's drive which led to Nick Folk's walk-off 50-yard field goal.
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The Patriots beat the Cardinals in spite of Newton, not because of him. And yet they'd be completely insane to think about making a switch under center at this point of the season.
Newton, who's been a limited participant in the first two practices of the week for New England with an abdominal injury, sounded on Thursday like he'll be ready for Sunday's game against the Chargers (3-8) in Los Angeles.
"I'm feeling as good as I should be feeling," Newton said.
If he's able to go, he should go. And it goes beyond the fact that he threw for 365 yards just a week before, as Bill Belichick reminded the media in his postgame availability last Sunday.
"The most important thing is we made the plays we needed to make to win," Belichick said. "That's what the goal will be every week."
Neither Newton's arm, nor the play calling, put the Patriots in position for Folk's heroics Sunday. But Newton's 14-yard scamper for a first down in a third-and-13 situation on the drive demonstrated exactly why he remains New England's best chance for a postseason berth.
Newton himself not only knows he needs to be better, he knows he was part of the problem on Sunday. In the aftermath of Folk's kick, Newton appeared to be saying "I'm sorry, man," to Patriots offense coordinator Josh McDaniels, referring to the poor position he put his team in.
In turn, McDaniels said he "absolutely" still has faith in Newton as a passer on Monday.
Whether that faith is justified or not, Newton has demonstrated over the course of 10 starts in 2020 that he's still capable of greatness in spurts...it just so happens to be mostly coming with his legs.
Newton got off to a great start running the ball in New England, averaging more than five yards per carry in his first six games. Though his attempts remained high -- he carried the ball a combined 21 times in back-to-back wins over the Jets and Ravens -- Newton totaled just 37 yards rushing over his next two games, and followed that up with three carries for six yards in a loss to the Texans.
On Sunday against the Cardinals, Newton carried the ball nine times for 46 yards, right in line with his form from earlier in the season.
Still, the Patriots are going to need to rely on Newton's arm at some point if this path to the postseason is going to be fulfilled. While almost nothing from last week should give you any sort of confidence, the alternative scenario of either Jarrett Stidham or Brian Hoyer has to be considered.
If New England had a viable backup plan, it would be one thing. If it had a quarterback who could truly push Newton in practice and better grasp the offense, the Patriots would have every right to break the glass in this emergency.
Both Hoyer and Stidham had more time in this off-season unlike any other with the Patriots than Newton, who wasn't signed until late June. Hoyer has had parts of seven off-seasons in New England now, Stidham two. If either quarterback were capable, they'd have been the starter from the get go.
While several teams recently have changed quarterbacks midstream for reasons unrelated to injury, nearly all of those situations made sense.
Last season, the Titans benched Marcus Mariota for Ryan Tannehill in Week 6 after the former No. 2 overall pick completed less than 60% of his passes to begin the season and had begun his sixth start 7 for 18 with two picks as Tennessee fell to 2-4. In 2018, Lamar Jackson took over for Joe Flacco after the Ravens suffered their fourth loss in a five-game stretch to fall to 4-5.
Each example is different -- Mariota had run out of chances over five years, Jackson was Baltimore's most recent first-round draft pick -- yet them same in that both Jackson and Tannehill represented worthwhile gambles. While Tannehill was maddeningly inconsistent over the first seven years of his career with the Dolphins, no one would ever say he's not at least a serviceable NFL quarterback.
Can the same be same for Stidham, who's thrown four interceptions in 27 career passing attempts? Or for Hoyer, who hasn't won a game as a starter since 2016?
Another notable quarterback switch in recent years occurred thanks to injury, when Nick Foles took over for Carson Wentz for the Eagles in both 2017 and 2018. The same Foles who, at one time, owned the best single-season touchdown-to-interception ratio in NFL history (27 to 2). He had a proven track record of success which made it easier to withstand the loss of Wentz -- so easy, in fact, Philadelphia won Super Bowl LII with Foles.
Above all else, it's simply too late in the season for a switch to be worthwhile. With five wins, the Patriots are much too far removed from landing anywhere near the top of the draft order.
Even if New England can't reach the postseason, there's another streak worth chasing for it: get to eight wins, and the Patriots will guarantee themselves a 20th consecutive non-losing season, matching the NFL record set by the Cowboys from 1966-85.
If Newton wants to be a starter in the NFL next season -- in New England or elsewhere -- time is of the essence. The Patriots are going to draft a quarterback in the first two rounds one way or another in 2021; for Newton, the second act of what's been a fascinating career in the league may be short lived if he can't get things figured out in the next five weeks.
All along, the marriage between the Patriots and Newton has been a symbiotic relationship in which both parties can benefit. It would behoove New England to extract all it can from Newton in the coming weeks, while it's imperative that Newton shows he's still a viable NFL quarterback both for the team's sake and his own.
The only way through this desperate time is for the Patriots and Newton to take the desperate measure of bringing out the best in one another.