Defense steps up as Patriots get back in playoff position

The Patriots’ 27-13 win over the Cardinals on Monday night will be remembered most for the injury to Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray.

If New England (7-6) ultimately secures a playoff spot it will also be recalled as the game that saved its season.

The victory moved the Patriots into the seventh playoff position and final wild-card slot in the AFC. Yet it remains very much a fluid situation with a tough four-game schedule remaining.

It begins with a trip to face a Las Vegas Raiders team on Sunday that is coached by former longtime Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. That will be followed by a trio of games against Cincinnati (9-4), Miami (8-5) and at Buffalo (10-3) to close the regular season.

But the Patriots walked off the field Monday feeling encouraged by a defense that showed signs it can carry the team over those final four games, if need be, buoyed by the career-best production of Matt Judon, the continued rise of linebacker Josh Uche and contributions from the young members of the secondary such as Marcus Jones.

“Everybody’s got a role, and when their number is called hopefully, they’ll come through for us,” coach Bill Belichick said. “These guys work hard. … They’re easy to spot.”

The defense will need to keep performing at that level after New England had two more offensive starters — running back Rhamondre Stevenson (ankle) and receiver DeVante Parker (head) — suffer injuries against Arizona.

Defensive back Kyle Dugger, who forced the fumble returned by Raekwon McMillan for a touchdown, said they are only looking forward.

“It was great to be able to get a win and move on and focus on what we have ahead,” Dugger said. “We don’t want to dwell too hard on our mistakes, but not having to dwell on a loss and get a win was what we needed.”

WHAT’S WORKING

The Patriots had a pair of red zone touchdowns, each on runs by rookie running backs Kevin Harris (14 yards) and Pierre Strong (3 yards).

New England entered the week last in the league in red zone efficiency, having scored a touchdown on just 37.5% of its trips inside the 20-yard line.

The Patriots are still at the bottom of the league after going 2 of 4 in the red zone against the Cardinals, but it’s a huge improvement and something to build on for a group that has been criticized for most of the season.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The offense’s third down efficiency remains an issue. It was 3 of 11 (27.3%) Monday and is ranked 28th in the league with a 35.6% conversion rate.

STOCK UP

Strong. The fourth-round draft pick out of South Dakota State made headlines at the NFL combine when he posted the fastest 40-yard time among running backs. He showed off that speed with his 44-yard burst in the third quarter on his way to finishing with five rushes for 70 yards and his first career TD.

STOCK DOWN

Trent Brown. The left tackle was whistled for two penalties (false start and ineligible man downfield), bringing his season total to 11. That is tied for the most in the league.

INJURIES

Cornerback Jack Jones (knee injury) joined Stevenson (ankle) and Parker (head) as early exits Monday.

Stevenson returned later in the first half, but was ruled out following halftime. Parker was pulled after fellow receiver Nelson Agholor noticed him in distress after Parker made a catch and took a hit in the first quarter. Agholor began waving his hands frantically to get the attention of officials as Parker wobbled as he tried to get in position for the next play. Play was stopped and trainers got him off the field.

The NFL and the NFL Players Association are reviewing the circumstances surrounding Parker’s injury and removal from the game.

It leaves the Patriots currently without their two top receivers and running backs. Jakobi Meyers (concussion) and Damien Harris (thigh) were both inactive Monday.

KEY NUMBER

10 — Uche’s sack total this season, all coming over the past six games. Judon leads the team with a career-high 14 1/2 sacks on the season, but Uche has emerged in his third season. It has given the Patriots’ pass rush another dimension with teams paying a price for just focusing on Judon.

NEXT STEPS

New England is staying in Arizona this week to practice for the Raiders, sparing itself another cross-country flight. Recovery is paramount due to the mounting injuries and a short week to prepare for Sunday.

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AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi contributed to this report.

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