It’s been eight years since the New England Patriots played a game in which Tom Brady didn’t start, but that streak will come to an end on Sunday night. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo leads the Patriots on the road against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 1 of the 2016 NFL season.
The Patriots and Cardinals reached last season’s AFC and NFC championship games, respectively, falling just short of reaching Super Bowl 50. While Arizona returns most of its key contributors, including quarterback Carson Palmer, Brady will begin serving his four-game suspension for Deflategate. As a result of Brady’s absence, New England is a six-point underdog after the betting line was set at a pick’em in April, per OddsShark.
If Brady is worth six points, the NFL is about to get an idea how many points Garoppolo is worth. Garoppolo was selected by the Patriots in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, but he’s only played sparingly, completing 11 of his 20 career passes for 188 yards and a touchdown.
Preparing to make four consecutive regular-season starts after having no starts in his first two years, Garoppolo saw plenty of playing time this preseason. Playing in three exhibition games, he posted passer ratings of 91.9, 87.7 and 67.9. Perhaps most impressively, he attempted 46 passes and didn’t throw any interceptions.
After watching Garoppolo, Arizona head coach Bruce Arians said the inexperienced quarterback reminded him of a young Tony Romo.
"The skill set," Arians explained during a conference call on Wednesday. "I think they both were similar sizes, arm strength, very accurate. Both moved around good."
It isn't certain that Garoppolo's top target will play. Tight end Rob Gronkowski has been limited in practice, and he told reporters that he's not 100 percent certain he'll be on the field.
"Yeah, it boils to a coaching decision, the medical team, and myself. We'll all get together and collaborate and see where I'm at," Gronkowski said on Thursday.
There’s no doubt that Arizona has the advantage at quarterback, but even if Brady wasn’t suspended, New England’s edge at the position might be minuscule. Only two players outside of 2016 NFL MVP Cam Newton received votes for the award: Brady and Cardinals’ starting quarterback Carson Palmer.
Twelve years after he was made the No. 1 overall pick of the NFL draft, Palmer had the best season of his career. Leading the Cardinals to 13 wins and an NFC West title, the quarterback posted career-highs with 4,671 yards, 35 touchdowns and a 104.6 passer rating. His 11 interceptions were the fewest of his career when playing at least 10 games in a season.
But last season ended about as poorly as possible for Palmer. He was intercepted four times in a 49-15 loss, performing his worst when Arizona needed him to step up the most.
Palmer will be going up against what should be a top defense in 2016. The Patriots ranked ninth in total defense last year and 10th in points allowed.
“They’re very athletic,” Arians said. “A solid secondary group. Interchangeable parts as far as inside and outside linebackers, which can get very confusing at times, and they do a very good job of it. They’re stout up front. I think when you look back in history, and I’ve gone against them a number of times, you’re going to get pressure.”
With a secondary led by First-Team All-Pros Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona is sure to have a top defense, as well. That could result in a low-scoring affair on Sunday night, though the over/under of 47 points is among the highest in Week 1.
Arizona certainly has the edge with their starting quarterback in the lineup, but New England is more than equipped to pull off an upset. With a top defense and arguably the best coach of all time, Garoppolo doesn’t need to play like Brady to keep the Patriots in the game.
Prediction: Arizona over New England, 21-20