By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — One bad taste can spoil a whole lot of good ones. Because of this phenomenon, your brain may be getting tricked into unnecessarily large amounts of pessimism when it comes to the Patriots playing on the road in primetime games.
That’s OK, because your first thought of how the Patriots play on the road in primetime might be this:
Sorry ’bout that.
But anyway, there’s no doubt that the Patriots are not perfect when they’re on the road under the bright lights of Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football, or even whatever that thing is on Thursday nights. But they’ve also gone into many other opponents’ buildings and surprised people with their performance. Most of the time they step up and play their best football, and more often than not they pull off the win. That’s why you should not count them out in Arizona for Sunday night’s season opener against the Cardinals, even with Jimmy Garoppolo making his first career start.
The bad memories, as is tradition, still linger. A good line of demarcation for this analysis is the 2009 season, the first year post-ACL injury for Tom Brady and the most distinct memories of road disappointment besides the 2014 debacle in Kansas City. The Patriots played well in Indianapolis against the Peyton Manning-led Colts on Sunday Night Football, but they ultimately lost 35-34 after Bill Belichick’s infamous “4th-and-2” gamble. There was also Monday Night Football in New Orleans, where the eventual Super Bowl champion Saints handed the Patriots a 38-17 thrashing.
It was on that night that Belichick lamented to Brady, “I just can’t get these guys to play the way I want them to.” Since that season, he has more-or-less turned that around when the Patriots are on national TV.
Consider the following season in 2010, in which the Patriots demolished the Miami Dolphins with a 41-14 drubbing on Monday Night Football that featured three special teams touchdowns. They also beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 39-26 in Pittsburgh that year, which was no small feat since the Steelers were the eventual AFC Champions. In 2011, the Patriots again faced the Dolphins on Monday Night Football, this time opening the season. Brady threw for 517 yards and four touchdowns in that game. Yuuuge fantasy numbers, Mr. Kraft.
The 2012 season broke the Patriots’ brief primetime road winning streak, but you could argue it was because of the replacement referees that ruined the beginning of that season. I maintain that the winning field goal by the Ravens’ Justin Tucker, who got the call in his favor to secure a one-point win in Baltimore, was not good.
But hey, it was a loss. Can’t change that now. This was once again a loss to the eventual Super Bowl champions, who marched right through Foxboro on the way to the Big Game. Still, the Patriots played well enough that the Ravens needed that last-second field goal to beat them.
The other primetime road game that the Patriots played that season went a little differently …
On to the 2013 season, when the Patriots marched into Atlanta to play the Falcons. Aqib Talib saved the 30-23 win with an interception in the end zone, but the Patriots were up 30-13 with five minutes left before the Falcons mounted a late comeback. Later that season the Patriots traveled to Charlotte to face the Carolina Panthers, who drove down the field with Cam Newton at the end of the fourth quarter to take the narrow 24-20 win. The Patriots had trouble defending Newton that night and a questionable non-call may have kept the Pats from their own last-minute comeback, but it was another solid road performance in primetime that was far from an easy situation for them.
And, of course, there’s 2014. The Kansas City Massacre was a season-changing kind of loss, as hitting rock bottom in such spectacular fashion lit the proverbial fire under Brady and the Patriots, who went on to win Super Bowl XLIX that season. Along the way, they trounced the Colts 42-20 in Indianapolis in the famous Jonas Gray game, and held the San Diego Chargers to 14 points in their own building for a 23-14 victory on Sunday Night Football.
Last season, the Patriots again beat the Colts on the road 34-27 and dominated the Texans in Houston 27-6, but fell to the Broncos in Denver 30-24 in what was arguably the biggest loss of the season. The Broncos ultimately proved to be the better team than the Patriots last season, but they got a hell of a fight out of the road team that night. The Patriots had a 21-7 lead at one point before Chris Harper’s muffed punt completely shifted the momentum in Denver’s favor.
In case you weren’t keeping score while reading this (why weren’t you?), that makes the Patriots 9-4 in 13 primetime road games since that ugly (by Belichick standards) 2009 season. Only one of those losses (Kansas City, of course) was by more than six points. If anything, Belichick has proven in recent years that he will have his team ready to go in those situations most of the time and give their opponent a tough game. It’s because of this history that I have spent the entire preseason wondering why so many people have marked Sunday’s season opener in Arizona an auto-loss.
Scratch that, I know why … it’s because the Patriots have Garoppolo under center and not Brady, and that’s fair. There’s a good chance that Garoppolo will struggle to move the ball against Arizona’s elite defense, on the road, on primetime, in his first career start. But there’s also a good chance that the Patriots defense will give Carson Palmer and the Cardinals offense problems and the game will be a tight battle. You should not be surprised if the Patriots can keep it close and maybe even pull off the upset.
Point is, Belichick in recent years has almost always gotten the team to step up and play their best football in these spots, to do what they could not do on that night in New Orleans seven years ago. The home team is often the heavy favorite in the court of public opinion, and the Patriots continually surprise people with their effort. You shouldn’t be surprised at this point. Kansas City should have surprised you; a good, close game in Arizona should not.
The Patriots may not have enough to win in Arizona, and that’s OK – Arizona is one of the best, most balanced teams in the league. But the Patriots certainly have enough to make winning as hard as possible for the Cardinals. Don’t let a strong effort surprise you; it should be expected.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.