By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — In a game filled with talented players for both teams on each side of the ball, the most intriguing matchup in Patriots vs. Cardinals Sunday night will take place on the sidelines.
Bill Belichick has always been one of the best-prepared coaches in the National Football League, and also one of the most fearless. He has benefitted, in part, from going up against coaches who are not as aggressive as him or do things to beat themselves before the teams even take the field. Every coach knows that Belichick will have his team as prepared as possible and won’t take his foot off the gas; few coaches understand what it takes to respond to that, let alone have the acumen or chutzpah to do it. Tom Coughlin, John Harbaugh, Sean Payton, and yes, even Rex Ryan, understand this, and their teams often give the Patriots trouble because of it.
Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians gets it, and he will not be afraid to battle back against Belichick on Sunday night.
Arians has long been a very aggressive, creative play-caller as both a head coach and offensive coordinator. In the 2010 AFC Championship Game, as OC of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he notably called a passing play on 3rd-and-6 with a chance to ice the game, and Ben Roethlisberger picked up 14 yards to secure the victory. In September of the 2015 season, Arians called a pass play with the Cardinals up 24-19 with under two minutes left, and running back David Johnson ran a dump-off 55 yards for a touchdown to put the game out of reach. In the Cardinals’ 26-20 overtime win in the 2015 AFC Divisional playoff against the Green Bay Packers, Arians’ aggressive play-calling paid off while Packers head coach Mike McCarthy arguably doomed his team by playing too conservatively.
That’s often how Belichick and the Patriots beat you: You can’t be too conservative. You can’t play scared, play not to lose. You need to make bold, unconventional play calls in high-leverage situations. You need to go for it on fourth downs, to go for big plays in precarious positions. You need to be unafraid of making mistakes – or else Belichick will force you into making them anyway.
Arians’ play-calling against the Patriots may not work out. He may make stupid calls. But one thing he won’t be is scared.
When asked about the Patriots on Tuesday, Arians said that they “always have a surprise for you. Extremely well coached. Not going to beat themselves, you to have to beat them.”
The last two times Arians coached his offense against Belichick, in 2011 and 2012 with the Indianapolis Colts, his quarterback made 50 pass attempts. Expect plenty of slinging the ball downfield with Carson Palmer. Maybe the Patriots defense won’t let them get enough time to make such plays, but they won’t be dealing with a coach who is averse to taking chances against them, either.
If Belichick ends up winning the coaching battle against Arians, he will have done so by beating a coach that is arguably just as fearless and creative. He may even coach circles around the less-experienced (as a head coach) Arians, but he won’t simply run him over with no resistance. The Cardinals’ gambles may not pay off, but gambles will be taken nonetheless.
Patriots-Cardinals pits two of the deepest, most talented and balanced teams in the league against each other, and the player matchups alone will be worth watching on Sunday night. But the idea of the two coaches going at it and taking shots against each other with all that talent will only make it one of the more exciting games you’ll see all season. Arians knows what he needs to do to have a chance in the coaching battle against Belichick and won’t be afraid to do it, which makes the spectacled one a more-than-worthy foe for the Hooded One.
Arians is a lot of things, but he’s not scared. And his aggression pitted against Belichick’s will only make Sunday night’s season opener that much better.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.