By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — New England woke up to the best-case scenario with the Patriots Monday morning, as the team sits alone atop the AFC East to start the 2016 season. Bill Belichick put on a coaching clinic in Glendale, where the heavily favored Cardinals fell short with a missed field goal as time expired. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was better than just about anyone expected as the Patriots return to Foxboro with an improbable, narrow two-point victory.
But, amazingly, the game probably should not have been that close.
The Patriots left Sunday’s win with plenty of “ups” to point out, including the performance of Garoppolo and running back LeGarrette Blount. But those two were also part of the “downs” from Sunday night’s win, because their problems with protecting the ball prevented the Patriots from winning bigger than they did.
Were it not for Garoppolo and Blount’s lost fumbles, the game may have never been in reach for the Cardinals. Arizona scored 14 of their 21 points directly off two Patriots turnovers, starting on their own 46-yard line and the New England 33-yard line, respectively, and briefly held a 21-20 lead in the fourth quarter as a result.
Late in the second quarter, with the Patriots up 10-0 and a chance to put the team up even further, Cardinals linebacker Markus Golden stripped Garoppolo of the ball, which found its way into the hands of none other than former Patriot Chandler Jones. He and a Cardinals teammate did draw an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after excessively celebrating the fumble, but Carson Palmer nonetheless drove the Cardinals down the field, capping the drive with a touchdown to Larry Fitzgerald.
Garoppolo’s fumble completely transformed the game, going from a potential two-possession halftime lead to just a three-point advantage. New England was undoubtedly happy to have the lead at all at halftime, but without the fumble, the lead could have been even greater. Garoppolo fumbled again on the Patriots’ very next possession, but Brandon Bolden was able to recover it.
Later in the game, the Patriots were again up 10 points, 17-7 in the middle of the fourth quarter. That was when Blount lost the ball at the point of attack, where the Cardinals emerged from the ensuing pile with the ball. Palmer took full advantage of the short field Blount’s fumble gave him and once again cut the Cardinals’ deficit to just three points with another touchdown, this time handing it off to David Johnson.
The two lost fumbles were ultimately the factors that kept the Cardinals alive in the game. Despite some clutch plays late in the game by Palmer and Fitzgerald and better ball security on the part of Arizona, if not for the turnovers they would have been playing from way behind at that point. Besides the fumbles, the Cardinals had issues moving the ball for most of the game. If Chandler Catanzaro made that final field goal – or if he got a better snap – and stole the win away at the end, the fumbles would be the focal point of many a conversation on Monday.
Despite the crucial mistakes forcing the Patriots to play from behind late in the fourth quarter, Garoppolo exceeded expectations with his play in that situation. He most notably hit Danny Amendola for a 32-yard catch on 3rd-and-15, sparking the drive that led to Stephen Gostkowski’s 53-yard field goal that put the Patriots ahead for good. It showed that Garoppolo’s prior mistakes didn’t rattle the first-time starter as he approached a clutch situation.
“That goes back to the preparation part. We were put in that situation, and I think the guys around me responded very well,” Garoppolo said after the game. “All across the board, the guys up front, skill guys, defense, special teams, whatever it may be, everyone stayed calm and reacted well to it.”
The negatives from Sunday night have to be highlighted. Garoppolo can’t fumble twice in a game moving forward. There’s a reason Belichick downplayed the “storyline” of Garoppolo having such a positive debut; he knows he can’t have his quarterback putting the ball on the ground every week and get away with it.
However, despite the glaring negatives with the fumbles, it’s amazing that the severely undermanned Patriots went into Arizona and won that game in the first place. That they could have won that game by double-digits is a testament to how deep, talented and well-coached they are. As great a win that was, it’s incredible to think that it could have been greater.
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.