Well...here we are. The final two. The preseason is under way, which means that there's actual football news to report and the games we're watching are no longer replays. It's the home stretch of our offseason countdown of the Top 20 Most Memorable Patriots Moments of 2016, and by this time next month, you'll all be reading my first official Fan Notes of 2017 rather than this recap. So I better make it count.
The list so far:
20. The New England Patriots trade Jamie Collins to Cleveland for a bag of peanuts.
19. LeGarrette Blount runs through the entire Seahawks line on his way to the end zone.
18. A Chris Long strip sack helps to ice the game against the New York Jets.
17. The Patriots defense shuts down Trevor Siemian and the Denver Broncos on the road.
16. LeGarrette Blount owns Byron Maxwell with an epic hurdle.
15. A different kind of Malcolm Go highlights a convincing road win against the San Francisco 49ers.
14. Chris Hogan finds some nice redemption against his old team in the form of a beautiful 53 yard TD.
13. Shea McClellin leaps the line to block a FG against the Baltimore Ravens.
12. LeGarrette Blount sets a franchise record with his 15th rushing TD of the year against the Denver Broncos.
11. Tom Brady hits Chris Hogan for a 79 yard TD to ice the game against the Baltimore Ravens.
10. Rob Gronkowski sets a Patriots All-Time receiving TD record by notching his 69th against the Buffalo Bills.
9. A kickoff return for a TD highlights a historic night for Dion Lewis in the AFC Divisional Round against the Houston Texans.
8. Dont'a Hightower blows up Andy Dalton for a safety to give the Patriots some much-needed momentum against the Cincinnati Bengals.
7. Michael Floyd decapitates Tony Lippett to spring Julian Edelman for a 77 yard touchdown.
6. A Jacoby Brissett naked bootleg highlights a Thursday night shutout of the Houston Texans.
5. Tom Brady returns from suspension to the tune of 406 yards and 3 TDs in an absolute beatdown of the Cleveland Browns.
4. Tom Brady becomes the winningest quarterback in NFL history by notching win #201 against the Rams.
3. A flea flicker and a rumbling run help send the Patriots to yet another Super Bowl.
The Number Two moment is an extremely interesting one in that, at first, I initially didn't even have it on my list at all. But then I remembered what happened, and how we all felt, and so I decided to stash it on there in the high teens. But as I kept honing and crafting the countdown, I kept finding very compelling reasons to revisit it, and keep on moving it up, and so now here it sits, just a single spot behind the best moment of the entire season. And in a way, that's exactly how it should be for the Number Two Most Memorable Patriots Moment of 2016, because having no expectations to suddenly exceeding all expectations is the primary reason I have this one ranked so high.
2. Jimmy Garoppolo comes out, in his first ever NFL start, and takes down the Arizona Cardinals on the road, in primetime, on Sunday Night Football.
Sunday Night Football. The first of the year. The opening slate of games was in the books, and the entire country turned its attention to a primetime matchup between the New England Patriots and the team that many experts had pegged as the projected 2016 NFC Champion, the Arizona Cardinals. The Patriots were opening the season on the road against Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, David Johnson, and a young and hungry defense.
And they were doing it without Tom Brady.
For the first time since 2001, Tommy B would not start the opening game of the season, as after a lengthy and absurd battle with the league over the sideshow that was Deflategate, he finally decided to stop the madness and just get his suspension out of the way. Guilt or innocence had gone out the window a long time ago, and the thinking was it was better to sit out four games early than have the suspsension upheld later in the year and have to miss the postseason. So like it or not, right or wrong, Brady was sidelined for the first quarter of the 2016 season.
His backup, one James R. Garoppolo, had yet to play a meaningful snap in the NFL. A second round draft choice out of Eastern Illinois, up until this point Jimmy G's only real accolades as a professional athlete were that he took a knee with the best of them, had a solid drive against the Chiefs in a blowout loss, and was undoubtedly the second best looking quarterback in all of football. He had never been asked to make a start, never had to completely command one of the most complicated offenses in the league, and had never had the eyes of the entire country on him as he filled in for the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. He now had to do all of these things, all at once, in a hostile environment, against one of the best teams in the NFL in 2015.
Piece of cake, right?
Very few people had the Patriots winning this game; hell, back when Brady was still slated to play as Deflategate waged on, this game was still predicted by many as a loss. Arizona is a tough place to play, and the Cardinals were looking to build on a very strong 13-3 campaign by coming out of the gate hot. You couldn't ask for a much worse scenario to throw the young quarterback into. Of course, Garoppolo said all the right things, and he clearly had the support of his teammates...but come on now. Jimmy G was no Tommy B. So when the game finally started on the evening of September 11th, most Patriots fans settled into the chairs hoping for the best, but expecting the worst.
The Patriots got off to a solid start, with its defense holding the Cards to just 19 yards on five plays for their opening possession. Garoppolo would start his first ever real NFL drive from his own 26 yard line.
Eight plays, 74 yards, and four minutes later, he would leave the field with the Patriots up 6-0.
He hit Edelman for 11. He bailed the offense out of a hole caused by offensive holding. He audibled to a run play when necessary. And when he hit Chris Hogan perfectly in stride for a 37 yard touchdown pass after reading the safety, Pats fans couldn't help but raise an eyebrow and wonder if maybe...just maybe...they were seeing something in this kid.
Garoppolo was by no means flawless. He missed some of his throws, and a slow reaction time ended up costing him a fumble that the Cardinals turned into an answering score. But he wasn't foolish with his throws. He never panicked. He stuck to the gameplan. And when he led the Patriots into the locker room at halftime with a 10-7 lead, he had already exceeded a lot of expectations.
He shattered those expectations on his next possession.
Garoppolo was perfect on his next drive, which went 75 yards on nine plays, included a 10 yard scramble for a first down, and ended with Blount moving what would turn out to be the first of many piles of defenders out of the way en route to a touchdown. With New England up by 10 points, they were able to shift their defensive philosophy a bit and force Arizona to gain yards the hard way. Unfortunately, a LeGarrette Blount fumble on the NE 33 yard line played a hufge factor in getting the Cardinals back in the game, as they were once again able to capitalize off the turnover to make the game 17-14. Jimmy G was able to get a FG out of his next drive, but Arizona scored a touchdown to take a 21-20 lead with less than six minutes left in the game.
Luckily for Garoppolo, he spent some time learning from a guy who knew a thing or two about fourth quarter comebacks.
It didn't come easy - the offense would need 13 plays to do it - but Jimmy G was able to get New England down to the Arizona 14 yard line before the drive stalled and Stephen Gostkowski made the score 23-21. Garoppolo had done what he needed to do - now it was up to the defense to protect the lead.
Arizona had a chance to win the game - we can't forget that - by driving down to the NE 29. However, the kick sailed wide, allowing Garoppolo to finally run a play that was very familiar to him: victory formation.
The Patriots had won. 1-0. No Brady, no problem.
Jimmy Garoppolo led the Pats onto the field for nine possessions, not including the end-of-game kneeldown. Of those nine possessions, five of them ended in points, and one was lost to a Blount fumble. New England punted twice all game, both times in the first half, and Garoppolo was almost perfect in the third and fourth quarters. As he jogged off the field after that kneeldown, surrounded by his teammates and coaches who couldn't congratulate him enough for his performance - 24 of 33 for 264 yards, a TD, and a 106.9 passer rating - Patriots fans everywhere turned their heads, consciously or otherwise, in the direction of 345 Park Avenue in New York City and wondered what Roger Goodell must be thinking.
This game was supposed to be the start of the Patriots paying for their "crimes." It was supposed to put them in an early hole to start the season. It was supposed to level the playing field and knock the Cheatriots off their high horse. But none of those things happened. The Patriots took their backup quarterback on the road and played a team that finished 13-3 last year and came out with a victory. Sheer desperation came in the form of "Bill Belichick can win with anyone, Brady is overrated" takes. Meanwhile, the Patriots just kept doing what they do best - winning - and the rest of the league had no choice but to take notice.
To make things even better, the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills all lost in Week 1, leaving the Patriots once again alone in first place in the AFC. It would be a position they would not relinquish for the rest of the year.
Later, Bruce Arians would point to this game as one of the major reasons why the Cardinals finished the year a disappointing 7-8-1. Losing at home like that, to a backup QB, was a killer blow that they never quite recovered from. the Patriots, however, galvanized by this win and brimming with confidence...well, we'll all be taking a look at how the 2016 season ended for them a little later.
Make no mistake: this was a season-defining game. It sounds absurd to say that, because Week 1 is never season-defining, but what the Patriots, and Garoppolo, were able to do in this one gave them an edge that they maintained throughout the 2016 campaign. It started everything off on the right foot and allowed them to come out swinging. It was, in a word, awesome.
I hope you all remember exactly how you felt before, during, and after this one. As sports fans, we find ourselves very invested in our respective teams; we aren't members, and the players don't even know we exist, but that doesn't stop us from feeling like we have a locker in that locker room as well. For all intents and purposes, we consider ourselves part of the team. We get a lot of flack for it from those who just don't get it, and understandably so...but we ride or die with our squads and that's just the way it is. And for Patriots fans who had spent way more time than any rational person should have to discussing air pressure and Clause 46 to people who had no desire to listen nor cared about anything other than some good old fashioned trolling, this game was a giant middle finger to the entire football world. No matter what you tried to do to this team, they were going to find a way to win. I watched that kick sail wide and was ready to run through a brick wall. I don't think there will ever be as satisfying a Week 1 win as what we all got to witness this past September. It made one half of an absolutely incredible set of bookends for one of the best Patriots seasons we will ever experience, so you're damn right I'm putting this one at Number 2.
Game highlights here.