The New England Patriots kick off their season with a week 1 trip to Arizona to face the Cardinals. The Cardinals were the Patriots equivalent in the NFC last season, losing 49-15 to the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship game.
The two teams will feature on NBC as the season’s first Sunday Night Football event. Kick off is at 8:30 PM EST on September 11th.
The Patriots and the Cardinals have played three times since Bill Belichick came into power in New England, with the Patriots holding a 2-1 series edge.
The two teams last played in 2012, with the Cardinals winning 20-18. The Patriots had the ball on the Cardinals 30 yard line and a holding call ad a subsequent false start against tight end Rob Gronkowski forced Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski to take a 42-yard field goal attempt, which missed the mark.
The Cardinals are now a wildly different team now than they were in 2012 en route to a 5-11 season record. QB Carson Palmer is a big upgrade over Kevin Kolb and now wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is surrounded by an able cast of skill players. The Cardinals featured the most efficient offense in the NFL with 2.60 points per drive (PPD)- ahead of the Panthers at 2.57 PPD and the Patriots at 2.49 PPD.
This offseason, the Cardinals added Super Bowl champion guard Evan Mathis to their already-strong offensive line- and they hope sophomore 1st round pick D.J. Humphries can replace Bobby Massie at right tackle.
But no storyline will interest Patriots fans more than the future of edge defender Chandler Jones. The Patriots sent Jones to the Cardinals this offseason for a 2nd round pick and former top 10 guard Jonathan Cooper. Jones is going to try and make life miserable for the Patriots offensive line.
The Cardinals hope Jones and 1st round defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche can spark the anemic pass rush to bring the squad over the hump and into the Super Bowl.
“The Cardinals defense biggest weakness was their inability to rush the passer,” SB Nation’s Revenge of the Birds writes. “They spent their first two 2016 draft picks addressing the issue. Jones is a proven nine sack a year player, Nkemdiche can be a dominant interior rusher early, it should improve the Cardinals biggest weakness.”
In a way, the Cardinals remind me of the Patriots after the departure of pass rusher Mike Vrabel. New England had a fantastic roster everywhere else, but there was no player capable of consistently putting pressure on the quarterback. The Cardinals have such great starting talent that they don’t expect much of an impact from any player outside of Nkemdiche- similar to how the Patriots rarely project a rookie into a starting role.
The Cardinals are hoping Jones can solve their pass rush problems the same way he helped the Patriots fix their own.
If Arizona has any questions on their roster, it’s with regards to the secondary. While one spot is held down by superstar Patrick Peterson (five Pro Bowls in five seasons, as well as three First Team All Pro nods), the other four positions are in flux.
Note that I am considering Deone Bucannon a linebacker because he spent 90% of his snaps at linebacker, per Pro Football Focus.
Tyrann Mathieu, who was legitimately in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, suffered a torn ACL in week 15 and his availability for the start of the season is in jeopardy. Mathieu was still named First Team All Pro at safety, but he can’t be expected to play at that level in his first game back from such a serious injury.
Two other starters from last year’s secondary, Rashad Johnson and Jerraud Powers, signed with new teams in free agency.
The Patriots offense will have to hope that the Cardinals secondary is still a work in progress, especially if quarterback Tom Brady remains suspended for the first four games of the season.
Back-up quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has very little game experience and will be thrown in against the 11th best defense in the NFL that allowed 1.71 points allowed per drive last season (the Patriots ranked 8th with 1.58 PAPD).
This game would have been difficult and potentially a loss, even with Brady at the helm. The Cardinals are currently 4.5-point favorites, but this is the only game on the schedule where the Patriots are underdogs.
The Patriots will only win this game if the defense plays at a high enough level to limit the Cardinals explosive attack. I have a hard time seeing Garoppolo scoring more than 24 points, never mind leading the Patriots in a scoring fest.
Look for the Patriots to try and control the clock with power runs and quick passes to running backs to try and generate yards after the catch- and to shorten the field for Garoppolo and take advantage of a questionable second level in the Arizona defense.
Can the Patriots win? Sure. Will they? Don’t count on it.
Predicted score: Cardinals 24, Patriots 20