The New England Patriots are plenty familiar with University of Phoenix Stadium. The team famously won Super Bowl XLIX there on a last-second interception of Russell Wilson two years ago. They also suffered one of the most improbable defeats in Super Bowl history when Eli Manning, David Tyree and the New York Giants ended their perfect season in the desert back in 2008.
Remarkably though, the team will open its 2016 campaign at the home of the Cardinals for the very first time in the regular season and the contest has the chance to be every bit as good as some of those previous classics. The first ‘Sunday Night Football’ game of the season will pit two legitimate Super Bowl contenders in their own right against each other in what just might double as the most anticipated contest of Week 1. While the offensive firepower each brings to the field is considerable, the two re-tooled defenses are likely to play a huge role in determining the outcome in this one.
Bill Belichick and Bruce Arians are two of the sharpest head coaches in the game and the chess match they play with each other (Arians being heavily involved on offense, Belichick running the show on defense) will perhaps be as fun to monitor as some of the stars involved in the game itself. Both teams fell just short of a trip to the Super Bowl in last year’s playoff runs and will no doubt be looking to put the past behind them with a big opening week win over a foe they certainly could see again come February.
This may not be the first game of the week nor the last but, given how highly regarded both rosters are, it would surprise nobody if this turns into one of the best games of the year given who’s involved. Two powerful offenses may dictate a bit of a shootout but the amount of potential All-Pro defensive players on the field may have other ideas come kickoff time.
New England at Arizona
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 11 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Arizona -6
Three Things to Watch
1. The Garoppolo Show
After what seems like a decade of Deflategate talk, the time has finally come for Tom Brady to serve his four-game suspension. That puts all the spotlight on Jimmy Garoppolo under center in what will be a big moment for both him and the team. The Patriots are obviously Super Bowl contenders once again this season but where they wind up seeded in the playoffs — or even whether they can win the division again — could possibly hinge on how they survive without their leader on offense. Garoppolo has only thrown 31 passes in the regular season but the first of the four-game stretch could go a long way in determining his future. If he plays well, it certainly lines him up to be Brady’s successor for real in New England or at least a potential target for other teams down the road. If he whiffs and the Patriots falter, the team may be looking for a new backup long term.
2. Chandler Jones’ Revenge
Arizona returns the bulk of a defense that finished fifth in the league in yards allowed but improving the pass rush was a clear focus in the offseason in order for the team to take the next step. In addition to spending a first-round draft pick on Robert Nkemdiche, the team shipped Jonathan Cooper to the Patriots in exchange for linebacker Chandler Jones. Add in Markus Golden and Calais Campbell and the Cardinals’ front is going to be trouble for everybody in the league. That starts on Sunday night with Jones’ old team, which has a first-time starter at quarterback and an offensive line that is in flux (to say the least). Jones is likely licking his chops at facing his old team but he won’t be the only one.
3. Injury impact
Even with time to rest up between the end of the preseason and the opener, both teams have a few injuries that could play a role in the outcome if things flare up. The biggest of note is obviously Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski who, after battling a nagging hamstring injury that limited him in practice, did not make the trip to Arizona and will not play. This is not great news for Garoppolo given Gronk’s red-zone presence and and his ability to win jump balls all over the field. To add to the concerns, starting left tackle Nate Solder and right guard Jonathan Cooper also did not travel, so the assumption is that the offensive line will be at less than full strength too. Meanwile, the Cardinals have Tyrann Mathieu seeing his first extended game action since tearing his ACL and will be starting rookie Brandon Williams at corner after Mike Jenkins tore his ACL, while veteran Justin Bethel is dealing with a foot injury.
The lack of Tom Brady and the impact of Deflategate will be a storyline that will continue to be debated over the coming weeks but the bottom line is that the Patriots will be without their MVP quarterback for four games and the bullets are finally about to start flying for real starting on Sunday night. Garoppolo has shown flashes during limited playing time and during the preseason but it’s one thing to look good against starters on a series or two and a different one facing a defensive onslaught for an entire game. Quick passes to speedy wideouts and new tight end Martellus Bennett combined with a strong defensive effort will keep New England in the game but there’s a reason why they are decided underdogs on the road in this one.
As for the home team, this year’s opener is a good way to get the bad taste of the 49-15 shellacking at the hands of the Panthers in last year’s NFC Championship Game out of their mouths. Carson Palmer still has plenty left in the tank and Bruce Arians is a master at coming up with attacking game plans that can annoy Bill Belichick to no end. The ground game should be a focus with versatile back David Johnson and a fully healthy Chris Johnson both able to take pressure off of Palmer to make every throw. The defense may wind up as the best in the NFC given the unit's impressive two-deep and the pass rush alone should be superior to last year’s unit. In the end, the home team has just too much firepower on both sides of the ball for the Patriots to overcome without Brady but do not be surprised if this turns into the opening act for a rematch in early February.
Prediction: Cardinals 31, Patriots 21
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.