In a week filled with more one point games than any other in NFL history the New England Patriots, sans Brady, sans Gronk, sans Ninkovich, sans Solder, sans Dion Lewis, and sans Vollmer went into the desert on Sunday Night Football and defeated the Arizona Cardinals. In a game most had tacitly accepted as an ‘L’ for the 2016 Patriots, the squad from New England was able to buckle down and hold on to a 23-21 victory thanks to a missed FG by Chandler Catanzaro in the waning seconds of the 4th quarter.
The game was the first career start for Jimmy Garoppollo and he was rock solid. 24-33 for 264 yds and a touchdown with no interceptions, the biggest story isn’t Garoppollo’s stats but his poise and the Patriots ability to convert third downs. During the 3rd and 4th quarters the Garoppollo led offense was able to convert several key 3rd downs (including a 3rd and 11 and a 3rd and 15) to keep drives alive and tack on a pair of Gostkowski field goals which would end up being the difference. Couple those key plays with a very pretty pass to Chis Hogan for a 37-yd score, Edelman leading the charge in the 1st half with 5 catches, and some key grabs from both Mitchell and Amendola and Jimmy G had himself a very nice debut on national television.
Perhaps the most impressive facet of the latest Patriot victory wasn’t the fact that it was done without key players at several positions but that the Patriots emerged triumphant even after being -2 in turnover differential in the form of two fumbles lost, one by Garoppollo on a sack and the other by Blount.
Blount’s fumble was unfortunate as it was a dark mark on what was elsewise a reputable performance. Even though he only amassed 70 yds on 22 carries (3.2 YPC), Blount was able to break off some key runs including a 3rd and 11 conversion as well as a bulldozing run into the endzone where he carried what seemed like half the Arizona D with him from the 5 yard line until pay dirt. Still, his fumble could have been disastrous as the Patriots seemed to be in control 17-7 when Blount’s miscue, caused by a great hit by Frosty Rucker, allowed the Cardinals to gain a short field and punch it in with David Johnson to tighten the game to 17-14. I don’t mind having Blount in the backfield but his play is very much determined by the offensive line’s play. He’s simply not going to make anyone miss if they get into the backfield before he gets going. I understood why the Patriots were still dialing up running plays late into the game but they are going to need better execution moving forward up front so LeGarette doesn’t look like an AT-AT getting taken out by a snowspeeder two yards behind the line of scrimmage.
While a lot of the headlines will go to Jimmy G (hard not to with that smile *swoon*) the real story is that the Patriot’s defense contained an explosive Arizona offense. Other than a broken tackle scamper by Johnson in the third and an impressive catch by Michael Floyd up the sideline, the Arizona offense was pretty much relegated to the short and intermediary passing game and Johnson, fantasy darling of 2016, was largely contained. Even with a late rally led by Larry Fitzgerald, the defense was able to hold on and force Arizona to kick a FG from Catanzaro’s maximum range. I was a little concerned with how much time Palmer had in the pocket on some plays but it seemed that may have been a function of play calling on the Patriots part as they were committed to preventing the big, downfield play that has become a hallmark of the Carson Palmer led Cardinals. Even given that, however, the Patriots were able to get to Palmer three times (Chris Long says hello Pats Nation) while Garopollo was only sacked twice. The Patriots secondary, beyond Larry Fitzgerald’s night, pretty much shut down Arizona’s vaunted receiving corps and even featured some key plays by Malcolm Butler, who, for some reason, Arizona seemed committed to picking on.
The Patriots offensive line, dinged up as it is, played well but still had some weaknesses show through. Credit to Dante Scarnecchia and Josh McDaniels for coming up with an offensive gameplan that masked their deficiencies, mostly by having quick developing plays and maintaining a faithfulness to a run game that stalled at times. Both Marcus Cannon and Cameron Fleming, the Patriot tackles, had stretches where they struggled but were able to persevere and do their jobs well for the most part. The biggest compliment I can give both Ted Karras and Joe Thuney, the pair of rookie Guards the Patriots started, is that I didn’t hear their names once all night which, for an offensive lineman, is a good thing. Another thing that was very noticeable was in the run game the showcase that was Martellus Bennett’s skill as a run blocker. The Patriots seemed to be favoring running towards his side and right at Chandler Jones, the ex-Patriot now playing DE/OLB for Arizona. Bennett, who was largely an afterthought in the passing attack other than a key 3rd and short conversion, was excellent at sealing the edge and blocking leading to most of Blount’s best runs. Having a player that can block like that and has the skill to make key plays in the passing game should be a huge asset moving forward and one who’s impact should only expand with the return of Gronkowski.
Overall, this was a great win to kickoff the season with. The Patriots, literally missing Hall of Fame talent, were able to go on the road and defeat one of the top two teams from the NFC last year and the team many have chosen to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LI. Not only that, but your back up QB was able to play almost mistake free football in his debut against one of the better secondary squads in the NFL and led your team down the field for a game winning score. What seemed certain as a 2-2 or maybe even a 1-3 start to a Brady-less Patriots now suddenly looks like 4-0 is not only a possibility but is becoming the favored probability with each passing minute but I guess its best to not get ahead of ourselves.
For now, we’re on to Miami.