By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The start of the Patriots’ season certainly could have been easier. Then again, you could say the same about the Cardinals.
The NFL season may have kicked off with the Super Bowl rematch Thursday night, but you could argue that Patriots-Cardinals Sunday night qualifies as an obscenely early “Super Bowl Preview.” The Cardinals may have lost the NFC Championship game in embarrassing fashion 49-15 to the Panthers, but they still boast one of the league’s deepest, most talented rosters, and their stadium will not be an easy place to play for the Patriots – especially considering they will have their backup quarterback under center.
More than enough has been said about Jimmy Garoppolo stepping in for the suspended Tom Brady. His up-and-down preseason has everyone guessing what he’s going to look like in his first career start. It would be hard to present a bigger challenge for Garoppolo than what he has in front of him in Arizona – but, ultimately, Garoppolo is likely not the deciding factor of whether the Patriots can upset the favored Cardinals. That will come from other parts of the roster.
The offensive line is easily the biggest question mark for the Patriots entering this game and the entire season. They don’t seem to have figured out a consistent starting five, and while returning offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia can no doubt be a boost, the players still have to go out and play. Their ability (or inability) to protect Garoppolo could be what ultimately makes the Patriots sink or swim.
Either way, it’s likely that Garoppolo and the Patriots offense will have their problems against the Arizona defense. On the other side of the ball, both Carson Palmer and the Patriots defense could have something to prove. Palmer was horrid in the NFC Title Game and needs to redeem himself quickly, but he’s going up against an incredibly deep and talented Patriots defense that may be looking to prove themselves to doubters as an elite unit in the league. The Patriots secondary, in particular, will have its hands full defending the Cardinals’ deep stable of receivers.
Here’s what to watch for in the Patriots-Cardinals season opener on Sunday night …
As Garoppolo prepares for the first four starts of his career filling in for Brady, the Patriots’ ability to protect him is paramount to their success – especially Sunday night. This “protection” comes in two facets: the offensive line needs to protect Garoppolo from incoming pass rushers, and the coaching staff needs to protect Garoppolo from himself.
The Patriots offensive line is easily the team’s biggest question mark entering the season and remains a work in progress, so they will definitely have their hands full (figuratively and literally) with Chandler Jones, Calais Campbell, and the rest of the Cardinals front-seven, and will need to keep Garoppolo upright – and not just in passing situations. They will need to give him time to execute every single play to avoid potential mistakes and turnovers.
Speaking of mistakes and turnovers … it’s highly likely that the Patriots’ offensive play-calling will be done so as to minimize mistakes and risky plays by Garoppolo. Can’t expect a 24-year-old in his first career start to sling the ball 50 times. Just like Bill Belichick won’t let Carson Palmer or Chandler Jones beat him all night, he’ll do his best to put Garoppolo in a position where he won’t give the game away with costly mistakes.
How will Carson Palmer respond?
One of the least-discussed headlines entering this game, around here anyway, is what to expect from Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer. Tom Brady comments aside, Palmer has a lot to answer for in this game after the last time he took the field in a meaningful game. He turned the ball over four times against the Panthers in the NFC Championship Game and Sunday night represents the start of something of a redemption tour for him.
Just one problem for Palmer in that regard … he’s going up against another deep, talented defense with a strong front-seven that has a good chance to turn up the heat on him. You can reasonably expect that the Patriots will have trouble scoring in this game, but if the Cardinals have similar struggles from Palmer that took place in the NFC Championship Game, then you could be looking at a Patriots upset.
Palmer’s recent history should give you reason for optimism, as he faces a Patriots defense that has a chance to be an elite unit in 2016. Garoppolo may have his share of struggles, but don’t expect smooth sailing for Palmer, either.
Chandler Jones faces his former team
If Belichick’s history is any indication, he will key on Chandler Jones with his blocking schemes. The last thing he would want is for Jones to make him look like an idiot for trading him away by blowing up Nate Solder with three sacks and by wreaking havoc in the trenches.
Never mind that whole psychological aspect. Jones is perhaps the biggest pass-rushing threat on the Cardinals defensive line anyway, so it’s likely that Belichick makes the Arizona front-seven get to Garoppolo with other guys. They could pull that off, but Belichick will almost certainly make sure that if the Patriots get beat up front, Jones won’t be the guy to do it.
Jones’ performance in high-leverage games with the Patriots was not great; as talented as he was and as disruptive as he can be at times, he also lacked any memorable performances in playoff situations or important games against talented opponents. His performance in his first career game against his former team will be one of the most intriguing stories to watch for Sunday night.
Patriots secondary vs. Cardinals receivers
Larry Fitzgerald is another year older, but is still a 6-foot-3 future Hall-of-Famer. Michael Floyd is big and strong. John Brown is small and fast. The Patriots’ defensive backs will have their work cut out trying to cover the Cardinals’ wide receiver corps, and it will be interesting to see how the Patriots approach their personnel matchups.
Malcolm Butler would be well-equipped to take on Brown one-on-one, while Fitzgerald might still find himself in double-teams. But that could also leave the 6-foot-3 Floyd in one-on-one with smaller DBs on the Patriots. Is new trade acquisition Eric Rowe ready to take on that kind of responsibility this soon?
The Patriots defensive front will hopefully give Palmer minimal time to fire the ball downfield, as the Cardinals and Bruce Arians do like to take shots. But if Palmer does get the time he needs, the entire game could come down to how well Butler & Co. can cover.
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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.