New England Patriots at Arizona Cardinals (-6.5, 46.5 o/u)
If both teams were at full strength, the first Sunday Night Football game of the year would be an epic tilt between Super Bowl contenders. Instead, we’re going to see the JV New England Patriots (13-5 SU, 8-7-3 ATS) take on an Arizona Cardinal team (13-3, 8-8 ATS) surrounded by its own question marks when they meet tonight in Glendale (8:30 PM Eastern at University of Phoenix Stadium).
You might be sick of hearing about it, but the biggest storyline heading into tonight’s game is the absence of New England QB Tom Brady, who’s suspended four games for his role in DeflateGate. Instead of the best QB of all-time, the Pats will roll with third-year pro Jimmy Garoppolo, who threw just four passes last season.
While Garoppolo was passable in the preseason and the Pats have an offense replete with stars, the young pivot may not have the security blanket that is Rob Gronkowski. The transformative tight end is battling a hamstring injury and will be a coach’s decision come game-time. If he can’t go, new acquisition Martellus Bennett (439 yards, three TDs in 2015 with Chicago) will have to come up big for Garoppolo and the Pats.
Wideouts Julian Edelman (692 yards, seven TDs) and Danny Amendola (648 yards, three TDs) will need to be at their best, as well, because New England isn’t likely to have much of a run-game. Aging LeGarrette Blount (703 yards, six TDs) leads a backfield that averaged just 87.8 yards per game last year and a measly 3.7 yards per carry.
In reality, the Pats chances in this game largely hinge on their defense, which figures to be among the best in the AFC. The unit is dealing with some turnover, having shipped DE Chandler Jones to the Cards in the offseason, but they brought in Chris Long to replace some of his sack production and still boast a top-notch linebacking corps led by Jamie Collins.
Collins’ veteran co-worker Rob Ninkovich is suspended for four games to start the year, but Dont’a Hightower and newcomer Barkevious Mingo will still make life difficult for Arizona in the middle of the field.
The Cardinals 2015 season fulminated in a devastating playoff loss (49-15) to the Panthers in the NFC Championship Game. Other than that, the year was a rousing success for the hard-luck franchise. Carson Palmer (4,671 yards, 35 TDs, and 11 INTs) led the offense to a second-place finish in scoring (30.6 PPG) and a strong secondary had the D top-ten in the league (19.6 PPG, seventh overall).
Palmer will have the same talented stable of receivers to lean on, including Larry Fitzgerald (1,215 yards, nine TDs), John Brown (1,003 yards, seven TDs), and Michael Floyd (849 yards, six TDs), and big things are expected from second-year back David Johnson (581 rushing yards, eight TDs), so ‘Zona’s offense should continue to roll.
What will happen on D is more of a question mark for Arizona. Tyrann Mathieu was the lynchpin of the Cards’ stalwart secondary. When he was lost to a season-ending knee injury late in the year, the defense as a whole took a step back. Mathieu is back on the field now, but whether he’ll be the same dynamic player who broke out last season remains to be seen. The Cardinal secondary certainly looked vulnerable in the preseason.
This is a dangerous game for bettors. The Cardinals will be fielding the strong lineup and will be at home, but the Pats still have the unparalleled Bill Belichick calling the shots. Belichick doesn’t make a habit of getting blown out, no matter who he has in uniform. That said, the Pats haven’t been a good road bet of late, going just 1-6 ATS in their last seven road games. With Brady out and Gronk laboring, I’ll take the Cards to win by a major.
Pick: Arizona (-6.5).
Photo Credit: ShoneBK (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0], via Wikimedia Commons).