The first Sunday Night Football showdown of the year may wind up being a Super Bowl preview. The Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots were both championship threats last season, and they appear poised to make even deeper playoff runs this time around.
On paper, these might be the two most complete teams in football. They finished second and third, respectively, in points scored last season and also both had top 10 defenses. But in case you haven't heard, one big piece of the Patriots will be missing in action when they take the field at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Tom Brady will be serving his four-game Deflategate suspension beginning Sunday night, meaning third-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will be under center for New England. He appears confident heading into the season opener, even as he stares at a giant shrine to Brady that's now on display at Gillette Stadium.
"Yeah it’s a smoother operation, I’ll say that," Garoppolo said this week. "It’s just me and Jacoby [Brissett]. All the reps are just between the two of us now and we kind of know where we sit on that. It’s different without Tom, no question about it, but it is what it is at this point."
During the preseason, Garoppolo completed 36 of 54 passes for 406 yards and one touchdown. But with Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman sitting out the bulk of the exhibition slate — Edelman only briefly played in Week 4 with Brady — it's difficult to forecast how Garoppolo will perform with the entire first-string offense in Brady's absence. But unfortunately for the first-time starter, he'll still be without Gronkowski, who has been ruled out with a hamstring injury.
The Patriots are entering the season with only four active wide receivers, so it seems as if they may stray away from their patented spread formation while Brady sits out. It will also be interesting to see how their embattled offensive line performs, which was the primary culprit in their AFC Championship loss to the Denver Broncos.
The Patriots probably have to go at least 2-2 with Garoppolo if they want a chance to secure a first-round bye this season. Beating the Cardinals will be their toughest test, since their next three games are at home. If the Pats are going to do it, they'll probably need their blossoming young defense to step up and make some plays.
With Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower leading the way, the Patriots have one of the best linebacking corps in the game. Malcolm Butler has developed into an upper-echelon corner, too, and he should be busy all night tracking down Michael Floyd, John Brown and the Cardinals' array of deep threats.
As good as Brady was last season — a 102.2 QB rating, league-leading 36 touchdown passes — Carson Palmer was just as productive. The 36-year-old veteran posted a 104.6 passer rating, throwing for 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns.
Though Larry Fitzgerald may not be as flashy as the aforementioned deep threats, he remains the focal point of Arizona's offense. The veteran wideout enjoyed a resurgence once he moved to the slot on a more full-time basis, catching at least 100 passes in a season for the first time since 2007.
But the Cardinals' 2015 campaign didn't end with Palmer and company lighting up the scoreboard. Palmer struggled mightily in the playoffs and threw four interceptions in Arizona's brutal Divisional round loss to the Carolina Panthers. A marquee Sunday Night Football matchup on NBC against the vaunted Patriots would be the perfect time for Palmer to make a statement and show he can perform in a big game.
One member of the Cardinals who will almost certainly be motivated is defensive end Chandler Jones. During the offseason, the Patriots shipped Jones to Arizona in exchange for offensive guard Jonathan Cooper. Jones led the team with 12.5 sacks last year, but is a free agent at the end of the 2016 campaign. In a classic Bill Belichick move, the Patriots opted to trade Jones a year too early rather than lose him to the open market for nothing. There was also his bizarre synthetic medical marijuana incident one week before the Divisional round, which may have factored into the Patriots' decision to cut ties.
Jones should give the Cardinals a fearsome pass rusher, which was previously one of their biggest holes. Now, with a stacked roster on both sides of the ball, the only obstacle that appears to be in Arizona's way is Palmer's dismal playoff track record.
The Patriots team that takes the field Sunday likely won't be indicative of what they'll be for the duration of the season. But in all phases of the game, including on the sidelines, Bruce Arians' Cardinals appear to be one of the few teams that can match Belichick's Patriots.
Don't be surprised if these two teams meet again in February.