Few teams are as effective when counted out as the Patriots and New England once again defied the odds with a spirited 23-21 victory over the Arizona Cardinals to open the season. Playing without Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, as well as much of the starting offensive line, New England pulled off the upset on the road against one of the best teams in football.
Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots season-opening victory.
McDaniels killing it – Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was on top of his game in the season opener, consistently dialing up the perfect calls at the right time. It made a lot of sense to give Jimmy Garoppolo some safe throws to open the game in his first career start and that's exactly what he did. McDaniels used plenty of play actions and misdirection to allow for a fast start. Garoppolo was sharp coming out of the gate, driving the Patriots 74 yards in eight plays, finishing it off with a 37-yard touchdown to Chris Hogan. McDaniels mixed the run and the pass and kept Garoppolo in comfortable spots throughout. Thanks in large part to that mindset, the Patriots went 10-for-16 (62.5 percent) on third down Offensively the Patriots couldn't have asked for much more, and overall the unit performed better on opening night than it had at any point all summer.
Bennett blocking – Martellus Bennett hasn't been known for his blocking during his career but he was excellent on Sunday night. Bennett was used mostly as an extra tackle throughout and contributed greatly in protecting Garoppolo as well as in the running game. Bennett was isolated several times on the edge and appeared to get the better of his opponent each time. While he only caught three passes for just 15 yards, Bennett's contributions in the desert came as an offensive lineman.
Cannon struggles – The reason Bennett's blocking services were needed was because the offensive line was decimated coming in. Nate Solder (hamstring) and Jonathan Cooper (foot) didn't make the trip and were scratched on Friday and Sebastian Vollmer (hip) is on PUP. That left Cameron Fleming at left tackle and Marcus Cannon on the right side while rookies Joe Thuney and Ted Karras started at guard next to David Andrews. Shaq Mason (broken hand) saw plenty of action rotating for Karras and that group struggled at times. Cannon in particular had problems with Calais Campbell and Chandler Jones. Jones beat him for a sack and Cannon was also called for a huge holding penalty that negated a pass interference call in the end zone. To make matters worse, Cannon was seen being carted through the tunnel outside the locker room after the game.
Leap of faith – Jamie Collins tried his luck leaping over the line on a point after attempt but unlike his previous attempt when he executed the move to perfection in Indianapolis last season, this time he landed on the guard and was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Collins appeared to incorrectly try to make it over the guard instead of the long snapper, and when the Cardinals lineman raised up Collins was unable to make it all the way over without making conduct.
Kicking it – Much was talked and written about the new touchback rule and how it might affect kickers and their decisions on kicking off. Stephen Gostkowski boomed his first attempt deep through the end zone for a touchback out to the 25, but his next two were much higher and shorter. The first was struck perfectly, landing at the goal line with plenty of hang time and leading to a short Cardinals return. The next one wasn't quite as high but went a couple yards deep in the end zone before Andre Ellington took it back 21 yards. Gostkowski's first kickoff of the second half went deep into the end zone for his second touchback. But he was back to the high and short variety on is next one, sending one to Ellington at the 5 before he returned to the 21. On his last attempt Gostkowski kept it short again and Ellington's short return was limited even further by a penalty, which forced Arizona to start its final drive at the 8. Belichick credited that final sequence as one of the key plays of the game.
View the best images from the Patriots Week 1 game against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday, September 11, 2016.
Nitpick department – Late in the first half with the Patriots protecting a 10-7 lead, Bill Belichick decided to play it safe offensively and kept the ball on the ground. Garoppolo appeared to check to a run play on first-and-10 from their own 31 and Blount picked up just a yard. On second down David Andrews was called for tripping, and Shaq Mason was flagged for holding on the following snap as the clock wound down to 39 seconds. The Cardinals had all their timeouts remaining and certainly Bruce Arians was going to force the Patriots to punt, but it was still a bit risky to have Blount try his luck up the middle on the next two plays, each of which was followed by a timeout. On the first of the Blount carries Patrick Peterson had his hand on the ball and nearly ripped it out. Given the limited time on the clock it would seem to have been wiser to have Garoppolo take a knee to eliminate the possibility of a turnover. It worked out but the risk of a fumble seemed unnecessary. Belichick made another curious decision at the end when he allowed more than 20 seconds to tick off the clock before using his final timeout prior to Chandler Catanzaro's missed game-winner. Belichick later explained he initially was going to hold onto the timeout believing the Cardinals would line up quickly to attempt the kick but when he realized they were milking the clock he opted to make the call.
Valentine's night – Rookie Vincent Valentine saw some action in the first half and came up with the first sack of his career. Valentine and Anthony Johnson (now wearing No. 96) rotated in at times throughout, the latter generally on third downs in passing situations. They joined starters Malcom Brown and Alan Branch on the inside of what was a pretty stout run defense most of the night.
Secondary concerns – Logan Ryan drew the unenviable task of covering future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald and he struggled at times. Fitzgerald has morphed into arguably the best slot receiver in football as he's entered the latter stages of his career and he came up with a number of huge catches Sunday night. He finished with eight catches for 81 yards and a pair of touchdowns, many with Ryan in coverage. Malcolm Butler also had some occasional problems, particularly early when he was beaten deep by Michael Floyd for 39 yards deep down the left sideline. He was also called for a key holding penalty in the fourth quarter as the Cardinals drove for a touchdown. Overall the secondary was not at its best, although Fitzgerald generally gets the better of whoever he usually sees.
Extra points – The Patriots improved to 13-4 in openers under Belichick and 13-2 after dropping the first two. … New England also improved to 46-11 against the NFC since 2002. … The game marked the first time since 2000 that the Patriots opened the season against an NFC opponent. New England hosted Tampa Bay and dropped a 21-16 decision in Belichick's debut as Patriots coach. … Cyrus Jones and Danny Amendola each returned punts with Amendola taking one back 8 yards while Jones recorded a 10-yarder. … Julian Edelman caught all seven passes thrown in his direction and picked up 66 yards on those receptions. Three of those came on the touchdown drive to open the game. … Rookie Malcolm Mitchell made the first two catches of his career for 33 yards.