GLENDALE, Arizona. (USA TODAY) - - The New England Patriots proved one thing Sunday night.
The system is as strong as ever.
It plays calling. It’s scheming against the opposition’s weakness. It’s plugging in unheralded players and transforming them into weapons. Guys like receiver Chris Hogan, a restricted free agent the Buffalo Bills let walk, now a key cog. It’s a commitment to consistency. It’s a hyper-focus on detail. And it’s so much more.
That was all on display here Sunday night, as the Patriots outlasted the Arizona Cardinals, 23-21, to open the regular season. But the most surprising thing about all of this, frankly, is that it’s surprising, to begin with.
This was a New England Patriots team that entered the game as 9.5-point underdogs, their biggest margin since Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002. The Cardinals, if preseason predictions are an indicator, are one of the favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
New England missed All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski (hamstring), lacked three starting offensive linemen, and lost the turnover battle -2.
Oh, and some guy named Tom Brady sat and watched from home, serving the first of his four-game Deflategate suspension.
So it would be up to third-year backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. And all he did was dissect a talented Cardinals defense to the tune of a 72.7% completion rate, 264 yards, and one touchdown. Far from flawless, it was efficient.
“He played well the entire game,” Hogan, who caught three passes for 60 yards and a score, told USA TODAY Sports in the locker room after the game. “He’s the starting quarterback of the New England Patriots. He stepped up well and he handled himself really well throughout the entire game. He was composed. He was confident. And I think everyone saw that in the huddle and responded.”
But Garoppolo was merely an instrument. He managed the shrewd game plan offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and coach Bill Belichick crafted: The Patriots alternated between spreading the field in three-receiver sets and power football in two-tight-end formations. They flustered the Cardinals' corners with crossing routes. Then, they took shots down the field.
“It is difficult,” Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson said. “They know we are a man (defense) and Belichick is a smart man.”
“I was telling someone earlier, it is still the Patriots,” Arizona linebacker Kevin Minter added. “The proof is in the pudding. They have done it for years. Whoever they put in there, they find a way to get it done.”
How strong is New England’s system?
The Patriots faced their first — and only — deficit of the night, 21-20, with 9:46 left in the game. New England had ceded momentum after controlling the majority of the game. It was up to Garoppolo and the offense to seize it back.
The drive started at their own 25-yard line. Players trotted onto the field and assembled the huddle. Garoppolo took command. And what he said sparked the 10 other players to embark on a 13-play, 66-yard drive that drained 6:02 from the clock and eventually won the game, via kicker Stephen Gostkowski’s 32-yard field goal.
“He didn’t say anything,” tight end Martellus Bennett told USA TODAY Sports as he pulled his silver rollaway bag toward the stadium’s exit. “We just said: ‘Let’s go.’ We didn’t make a big deal out of it. We didn’t need to get hyped. Our coaches put us in these situations all throughout camp and we practiced it. We experienced those moments before. We knew what we had to do. It was just: ‘Let’s do it.’ ”
Receiver Julian Edelman asked to recall what was said in the huddle: “I don’t even remember.”
In the locker room, as players dressed swiftly to catch a five-hour redeye home, this was just another game. But New England sent a message to the rest of the league.
“Whoever is out there,” Garoppolo said in a press conference, “we have confidence in one another and that’s a good thing.”
That’s the scary part. At least, for the rest of the NFL.
The Brady-less Patriots, after the rest of the AFC East lost their openers, already have a one-game cushion in the division.
New England’s next three games — which will conclude Garoppolo’s stint at quarterback — are all at home in Foxborough, Mass., against the Dolphins, Texans, and Bills.
Once Brady, Gronkowski, defensive end Rob Ninkovich, and the absent offensive linemen return, the Patriots will be stronger.
“All the adversity we had in the first game, it’s good,” Bennett said. “It shows us that we can overcome anything.”