When the day began on Friday this game had a very different feel, and what I mean by that is I had no feel for the game at all. I had absolutely no opinion on how I expected it to turn out. The only other game in the last 15 years that I can remember not even being able to predict or say what I thought would happen was the Cincinnati game in 2014. We have not seen Jimmy Garappolo and Rob Gronkowski on the field at the same time and I, like most people, believe that this could completely change the way Jimmy plays. Still though, without Tom Brady, and without really knowing what Jimmy G is, I still didn’t feel confident in making any predictions on this game. Now that we have heard the news that Gronk, Nate Solder, and Johnathan Cooper will not be playing Sunday night I have a much better idea of what should happen.
Gronk’s absence will be massive, this much is obvious, but I don’t even think he’s the player that will be missed the most on Sunday. Martellus Bennett is not Rob Gronkowsk, but he is a damn good tight end and should be able to carry the load while Gronk works his way back to 100 percent. As annoying as it is every time Gronk is slow in coming back from injury I do understand it, and I actually agree with it in this case. Get him healthy for when the games truly matter.
The absence of Solder and Cooper should hurt the team a lot more than Gronk on Sunday. The Patriots are already without Sebastian Vollmer, and will now be forced to start either Cam Flemming, who was cut coming out of camp in 2015, or LaAdrian Waddle who was in danger of being cut this year. Without Cooper, the Patriots will have four interior lineman active for three spots, and one of those four, Shaq Mason, has a broken hand. Mason better be ready to go because I don’t think Ted Karras is ready for primetime yet.
The Cardinals are probably the last team you want to face when your offensive line is in shambles. Last season they blitzed on 43.1 percent of their defensive snaps, a full four percent higher than any other team in the NFL. This should spell trouble for the Patriots after seeing the trouble Garappolo had with holding onto the ball during the preseason. Obviously, the situation with the offensive line does not help, especially now that Arizona has added Chandler Jones to come off the edge.
There is a silver lining to the amount of pressure that the Cardinals bring, and it is that when you blitz you leave your secondary in a lot of one on one coverage. Fortunately for the Patriots, other than Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Matheiu, the Cardinals secondary is not very good. Last season Justin Bethel was decent, but he was mostly a special teams ace. Marcus Cooper, who had a good rookie year for the Chiefs in 2013, but has done nothing since, was just acquired for next to nothing will likely see a lot of snaps in this game. The fourth and final corner on the roster is rookie Brandon Williams, who for his first three years at Texas A&M was a running back. If Jimmy Garappolo can get the ball out quickly in the face of the blitz, the Patriots receivers should be open all night.
The Patriots are heavy underdogs in this game, and rightfully so given all of the talent that they will be missing. There is certainly a scenario where this game turns into the Chiefs game from 2014. Arizona is a notoriously raucous crowd, and this Cardinals defense reminds me a lot of that Kansas City defense. With an inexperienced quarterback making his first start, under these circumstances I could easily see the Patriots getting overwhelmed in this game and getting blown out, but that’s not what my gut tells me is going to happen.
I have seen enough Bill Belichick teams over the last 15 years to know that when the odds are stacked against them is when they play their best games. I also have trouble believing that with a full offseason to prepare that Belichick and McDaniels won’t have a solid game plan in place for Garappolo. The other thing working in the Patrios favor is that this defense is damn good. I don’t think it’s outrageous to say that this could be the best defense since the teams of the early 2000s. To win this game the defense will have to keep it close, and keep the Cardinals around 20 points, which they are fully capable of doing. On offense, Jimmy just has to not make mistakes, and not try to do too much. If he plays within the offense and doesn’t force balls off his back foot against the blitz he will be fine. They of course have to establish the run to slow down the Arizona blitz, which again is easier said than done with a rag tag offensive line, but LaGarrette Blount has looked good so far and should be up to the task.
With all of the talent missing for New England they should have no shot to win this game, and everything I know about football tells me to expect Jimmy Garappolo to look awful against this Arizona defense, but everything I know about Bill Belichick tells me otherwise.
Final Prediction: Patriots 23 Cardinals 17