Even though the Cardinals' key skill position players enjoyed strong performances, it was too little, too late in a 23-21 loss to the New England Patriots in week one of the 2016 season.
The Patriots were without future Hall of Famers Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski and forced to start a pair of rookie offensive linemen thanks to an assortment of injuries up front, but even that didn't stop New England from outplaying the Arizona Cardinals' offense in the first half of Sunday's contest.
Behind backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the Patriots jumped out to a 10-0 first quarter advantage, and led the Cardinals 10-7 at halftime as Arizona's offense never found a rhythm in the first half.
"It went in spurts, you know, we had it going for a little bit, nothing sustained," Fitzgerald said. "We have to find a way to be able to get that going and to maintain the positive drives."
A Cardinals' team that set a number of franchise records on offense a season ago and returned every key skill position player looked flummoxed early on, and Palmer said the team failed to execute when given the chances to put points on the board in the first half.
"We just didn't make enough plays in the first half, we came out too slow," Palmer said. "When you have to win it with a late field goal, you're obviously behind the eight-ball. We were further behind the eight-ball than we expected to be and wanted to be."
The Cardinals finished the night 6-for-12 on third down conversions, but the team's 50 percent efficiency in those situations was a result of improved performance on third downs in the second half.
Throughout the first half, Arizona consistently found itself in third and long situations, while the Patriots were able to generate early success on third downs because Garoppolo was able to get the ball out of his hands quickly throughout the contest.
"We were 50 percent on third down but it wasn't good enough," Arians said. "Got ourselves behind the chains there but yeah I thought we hit a couple really good spurts. But we started in such long field positions from poor special teams, kickoff return was awful and we were behind the 20 most of the time. When we got the short fields, we got touchdowns."
Even though the Cardinals finished plus-two in turnover margin, Arians said Arizona is going to have a hard time defeating anyone if the team struggles as much as it did defending third down plays.
New England had success targeting nickel corner Tyvon Branch, who had a critical bat down on a third down pass in the first quarter that forced the Patriots to kick a field goal. Aside from that play, though, Branch had difficulty defending leverage routes from Patriots' receivers like Julian Edelman which ultimately contributed to sustained drives for New England.
"That's their whole forte, their crossing routes, their quick out routes, and we just did a poor job of stopping the third receiver breaking out most of the night," Arians said.
With the opportunity to defeat a depleted version of one of the NFL's premier teams, the Cardinals fell flat at home. Arizona's offense didn't look comfortable in the preseason, but Palmer and Arians insisted that the team would have no difficulties once regular season action rolled around. While the Cardinals looked the part of a contender at various points in the second half, Arizona's performance was uneven throughout the game and veteran Calais Campbell said the team knew what type of an opportunity it missed.
"We didn't make enough plays and the Patriots did, that one's definitely going to sting at home," Campbell said. "Those are the ones you definitely have to get, but we had our chances and we just didn't capitalize."
Cardinals veterans like Fitzgerald, Campbell and Palmer expressed obvious disappointment after a humbling loss on Sunday, but they also put the loss in perspective and said Arizona has to use it as motivation to ensure a slow start like this doesn't happen again.
"Any time you lose a game it's a tough pill to swallow but we'll bounce back, we need to bounce back," Palmer said. "Any time you lose the opener at home it hurts, but there's too much football ahead of us, too many guys that love the game, have passion for the game, want to get it right and want to bounce back with a big win at home next week and we'll continue to work to be able to do that."