The long wait is finally over. After seven months since the Super Bowl, week one is finally upon us. The Patriots will face off on Sunday Night Football against the Cardinals in what many are calling a "Super Bowl preview". There are several factors to consider and we will be sure to preview it here as we get you set for the Patriots versus the Cardinals.
The biggest storyline coming into this game is that Jimmy Garoppolo will be the starting quarterback for the Patriots, rather than Tom Brady. Brady is currently suspended for the first four weeks of the season and thus, Garoppolo has been functioning as the team's number one quarterback. He will make his first career regular season against arguably the best team in the NFC, the Cardinals. A former second round pick out of Eastern Illinois, Garoppolo was seen by some as Brady's heir someday once the future Hall-of-Famer retired. But now, he will start in place of him after an up-and-down preseason performance.
The Patriots are also going to be without some other starters on offense, including All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. He had been dealing with a hamstring injury that originally occurred in the preseason and did not travel with the team to Arizona after practicing all week on a limited basis. Without Gronkowski, the team will turn to Martellus Bennett at starting tight end. Bennett, a veteran tight end acquired from the Chicago Bears earlier this off-season, will be thrown right into the action in place of Gronkowski this week. But, "Gronk" is not the only notable absence this week for the Patriots.
Starting left tackle Nate Solder and offensive guard Jonathan Cooper stayed back with Gronkowski and will not play this week either. Solder, coming back from an arm injury that caused him to miss most of last season, will not play this week due to a hamstring injury. This is a big injury as he is starting left tackle and the team was already dealing with other losses along the offensive line prior to this. Speaking of that, Cooper will not play either as he works his way back from a bout of plantar fasciitis. Cooper was acquired from the Cardinals over the off-season in the trade that sent Chandler Jones to the Cardinals. Expected to compete for a starting guard spot, he will sit out this week.
Other "questionable" players on offense include wide receivers Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell and offensive guard Shaq Mason. Hogan should be active tonight as he was a full participant in practice all week, while Mitchell may be a game-time decision as he is working his way back from the gruesome elbow injury he suffered in the preseason. Mason suffered a broken hand earlier in the preseason and had been practicing on a limited basis, so he could be another game-time decision as well. And considering the amount of change the offensive line has gone through (released Bryan Stork and Josh Kline, Sebastian Vollmer injured), having Mason active becomes that more important.
Expect to see the Patriots try to set the tempo early with the run game, led by LeGarrette Blount and try to avoid using the passing game in high-pressure situations. But when they are forced to pass, Bennett, Hogan and Julian Edelman are expected to be Garoppolo's main targets in the passing game. Keep an eye on James White and D.J. Foster out of the backfield as receiving options at the running back position. The Patriots are expected to target rookie cornerback Brandon Williams often as opposed to All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson, so this could provide a small chink in the armor of the Cardinals stellar defense.
Moving on to the defensive side of the ball, the Patriots remain relatively healthy going into week one other than a few players listed as "questionable". Defensive end Trey Flowers and linebacker Shea McClelin are both designated as "questionable" for the game but both have a good chance of suiting up tonight as they both participated in practice all week on a limited basis. Other than those players, the entire Patriots defense is healthy as Jabaal Sheard was not listed on the injury report despite dealing with an injury during the end of the preseason. The team's secondary is completely healthy as well, as they will need to be considering the trio of wide receivers that the Cardinals have.
The Patriots will have to make sure they are able contain the trio of John Brown, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd as they are all proficient receivers who can cause trouble in all aspects of the passing game. With Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan as the primary outside cornerbacks, they will surely have to live up to the performances they gave in 2015. Besides them, the starting safeties of Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty will have their hands full as well trying to support in the pass game with the trio of Brown, Fitzgerald and Floyd along with speedy deep-threat J.J. Nelson. It doesn't hurt when their quarterback is one of the better passers in the game in Carson Palmer. Along with the deep wide receiver group that Cardinals boast, they have an equally dangerous weapon at running back too.
David Johnson, a third round pick in 2015 by the Cardinals, broke out late last season and emerged as not only a proficient runner but as a dangerous receiver in the pass game as well. Coming into this season, he is expected to be a big part of the Cardinals offense and provide a big spark for the team. He will be a player that the Patriots will have to keep their eye on the entire time as he is always a threat for a big play with the ball in his hands. The team also has veterans Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington, who have both proven to be dangerous in their own rights. The defensive line of the Patriots, already missing Rob Ninkovich, have a tough assignment along with superstar linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins as well.
Overall, this will be a tough match-up for the Patriots as they face a team in the Cardinals who are proficient both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. While the Patriots are entering this game as the underdogs, there is still a chance for the team to escape with the victory if the defense is able to keep this game close. They will almost need to as the offense will most likely have their issues with a back-up quarterback under center. Regardless, this will be a very entertaining match-up to watch on Sunday Night Football.