It’s officially that time of year when pigs fly - pigskin, to be exact.
The NFL season is here, and that means the Patriots will set out with another Super Bowl on their minds, as they’ve done since basically the turn of the century.
And they’ll begin their 2016 journey in a place it ended two seasons ago with a fourth Super Bowl championship: Arizona.
The Cardinals host the Patriots in a Sunday night showdown (8:30 p.m., NBC), pitting Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer and his high-powered offense against a Patriots defense thought by many to be one of the most talented in the league. But the story in this game – at least around New England – isn’t going to be so much what the Patriots defense does, but what the Patriots offense does . . . specifically, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who will make his first career NFL start.
Garoppolo is slated to start the first four games of the Patriots season, as Tom Brady will serve a four-game suspension for the infamous Deflategate debacle.
How Garoppolo holds up in those games is anybody’s guess, but Sunday night should certainly be the hardest test of them all . . . on the road against a Super Bowl contender . . . in prime time . . . for the first time in his career.
Cardinals can thank Arians
A few seasons ago, this would have been a rollover win for the Patriots. In 2012, the Cardinals ranked dead last in total yardage (263.1) and 31st in points per game (15.6). Bruce Arians then took over as head coach, and along with Palmer, transformed the Cardinals. Last season they finished second in total yardage (399.3) and second in points per game (29.4). Arians was named AP Head Coach of the Year, his first with the Cardinals, but second of his career after the fill-in job he did in Indianapolis. He has plenty of history against the Patriots as offensive coordinator of the Steelers and Colts since 2007. “He’s a very creative coach,” Bill Belichick said of Arians. “He has got a foundation that he builds from and then he can also expand that into whatever areas he feels like you’re vulnerable at. He does a good job of it.”
Pray for Jimmy G
You can point to offensive stars like Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, and David Johnson all you want, but the Cardinals were arguably a top five defense last season, and there’s no reason to believe that can’t be the case again in 2016. They gave up an average of 321.7 yards per game last season, good for 5th best in the NFL. It’s pretty easy to see why. Players like Calais Campbell, Patrick Peterson, and Tyrann Mathiew make them strong all over. Mathiew tore his ACL in Week 15 of the 2015 season and is still expected to start Sunday night. And they only added to it this season by trading for some guy named Chandler Jones, the Patriots sack leader from 2015.
Not just Gronk and Edelman
Plenty of attention will be paid to Rob Gronkowski Sunday night, but don’t be surprised if he’s used to help block on the offensive line more often than usual. That could create a bigger offensive night for fellow tight end Martellus Bennett, who finished with seven catches for 62 yards in the preseason. Julian Edelman will always be a popular target, but Chris Hogan had 12 receptions for 137 yards and a touchdown during preseason play. The Patriots have plenty of receiving options.