December 26th, 2008 was the last time the Arizona Cardinals visited Gillette Stadium. That team was annihilated by the home squad. The Patriots offense gained 514 yards, the defense limited the Cardinals to 186 yards, and Steven Gostkowski did not miss the uprights once.
Odds makers were predicting a similar story this afternoon. The Patriots were 14 point favorites. It was the largest spread of any NFL game this week. Vegas got this one wrong.
An athletic and punishing defensive effort by the Cardinals combined with costly errors by the home team caused the Patriots to lose their first home opener ever at Gillete Stadium, 20-18.
Things almost turned out differently. The Patriots were all but handed a victory with about a minute left to go in the game. Cardinals running back Ryan Williams fumbled the ball as Pats fans were heading towards the exits, thinking the Cardinals were going to let the clock run out. Linebacker Brandon Spikes punched the ball out from Williams and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork landed on the ball deep in Cardinals territory, breathing new life in to what seemed to be a lost game.
On the second play of the ensuing drive, running back Danny Woodhead sprinted untouched in to the end zone. However, a holding call on Rob Gronkowski nullified the touchdown. Gronk made another mistake two plays later when he was called for a false start.
The Pats remained calm as kicker Steven Gostkowski, who had already made four field goals on the day, came out to try win the game. The 42 yard kick should have been easy pickings for Gostkowski, who already had made attempts from 46, 51, and 53. The ball sailed wide left and the Patriots lost at home for the first time in nearly 10 months.
However, the blame for this loss should not fall squarely on Gostkowski’s foot. The team failed to put together a consistent offensive rhythm. Tom Brady threw an interception on the first play of the game. Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker failed to pick up the receiving slack after tight end Aaron Hernandez went down with a gruesome ankle injury in the first quarter. The two receivers were overthrown multiple times and failed to find the holes in the Cardinals backfield.
Mistakes were costly for the Patriots, but they were also thrown off guard by an overpowering Cardinals defense. The defensive line harassed Brady all day, sacking him four times. Calais Campbell was a one man Tom Brady wrecking crew. The defensive end had two sacks, three tackles for loss, and hit Brady three times. This consistent pressure wore Brady down. The Patriots quarterback did not throw a touchdown pass until midway through the fourth quarter.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the Cardinals defense was their ability to prevent the Patriots from sustaining momentum even after their own offense sputtered. Halfway through the second quarter Chandler Jones stripped the ball from Cardinals QB Kevin Kolb. The Patriots recovered.
The Cardinals did not let this mistake slow them down for even one play. They sacked Brady on two consecutive plays for a loss of 10 and a loss of seven yards.
The tide shifted in the third quarter when Cardinals linebacker Quentin Groves blocked a Zoltan Mesko punt. It was the first blocked punt of Mesko’s career. The heads up play by Groves gave the Cardinals the ball on the two yard line. Kolb connected with Andre Roberts and the Cardinals took the lead for good.
This game will provide a valuable lesson for this Patriots team, the fourth youngest squad in the league. It’s a good thing that they have such a cool headed coach at their helm. Belicheck will probably tell these guys to forget, refocus, and prepare for the Ravens. He’ll probably also remind them that there are no guarantees in this game, even if Vegas says otherwise.