by Sterling Xie
This is supposed to be a column about underdogs. While there have been many ways to describe the Patriots during the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, rarely has the underdog label been an appropriate one. Headed into 2016, the Pats had been underdogs in just 50 regular season games since 2001, by far the lowest total in the league. New England had also posted the best winning percentage in games as underdogs, going 29-21. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have gone 35-31 in 66 such games (the second-lowest total in the league), also finished above .500 as underdogs.
Of course, the circumstances surrounding this win hardly match those of the previous 29. This wasn't a Brady-led behemoth traveling to Indianapolis or Denver to face a Peyton Manning-led behemoth. This was a short-handed team traveling to face a conference finalist from last season and one of the consensus Super Bowl favorites for this season. The Patriots closed as nine-point underdogs, the most points they've gotten since they were memorably two-touchdown underdogs in Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams. (For those curious, only three of those 29 games with the Pats as underdogs came in 2008, the Matt Cassel year.)
In that context, this might be New England's most surprising win since the Patriots became the Patriots. And while we probably learned less about the Cardinals on Sunday night, failing to beat the undermanned Pats in Glendale won't quell the concerns some harbored about this team after last January.
The Kid is Alright
Starting Jimmy Garoppolo in place of Brady is one thing, but throwing Garoppolo out there minus Rob Gronkowski, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Jonathan Cooper, and Dion Lewis sounded like borderline endangerment. Based on the personnel, one might not have faulted Bill Belichick for dusting off his game plan from the Week 17 contest at Miami last year, when his primary goal was ostensibly to run out the clock ASAP and get out healthy.
Instead, Belichick and Josh McDaniels designed a game plan which was certainly kid-proofed but not entirely different from what you might expect from a typical New England offense. The Pats did run the ball on 13 out of 25 first-down plays (excluding the game-ending kneel down), and a few of those passes only came after penalties which put the offense in first-and-long situations. Last year, they ran the ball on just under 44 percent of their first-down plays, which ranked 28th. Additionally, we saw none of the hurry-up tempo which has become a fixture under Brady and which might have made sense against an athletic well-schemed defense like Arizona's. For lack of a better term, taking the air out of the ball was critical to New England's offensive game plan.
So against a more talented opponent, the Patriots took up the type of David strategy that always looks good on paper but in reality leaves a team with little margin for error. They significantly shortened the game, with each team receiving just nine possessions when you exclude the one-play drives that ended both halves. And they created and converted manageable third-down situations, going 10-for-16 on third downs, a better conversion rate than they managed in all but two games in 2015, including the postseason. Helpfully, seven of those third downs came with 6 or fewer yards to go, and that doesn't include a third-and-4 Garoppolo twice converted in the fourth quarter, only to have back-to-back Patriots penalties nullify each play and force them into a 3rd-and-14.
But dinking-and-dunking only goes so far, so Garoppolo certainly deserves credit for delivering the best and most important deep-ball completions of the evening. While it has become a widely held assumption that the deep ball represents the hole in New England's passing chart, Brady was successful when he did air it out in 2015. His 80.9% DVOA on passes charted as deep (16-plus yards through the air) ranked fifth among quarterbacks with at least 30 deep attempts. Staying on schedule with the underneath man coverage beaters is only part of the job. If the Garoppolo-led offense had hoped to sustain production close to the Brady-led version over these four games, hitting the deep balls was always part of the requirement.
Garoppolo only attempted four passes that traveled more than 15 yards in the air, but he hit two of them, which may have been New England's two most important offensive plays. The first was this touchdown on the opening drive to Chris Hogan, which gave the Patriots a cushion they maintained for most of the game. The second came after Arizona had taken the lead for the first time, when the Pats were backed up deep in their own territory and facing third-and-15 after a sack and incompletion. Inexperienced quarterbacks holding the ball for prolonged periods usually end up in trouble, but Garoppolo did a nice job of moving around in the pocket and scanning through his reads until he found the mistake in Arizona's scrambled secondary.
(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)
The play itself also represented a high-water mark of sorts for the Cardinals. According to ESPN's win probability model, Arizona's win probability was 61.6 percent headed into the play, its highest mark in the second half. (The Cardinals' win probability technically peaked at the start of the game because the simulator, run by former Advanced Football Analytics creator Brian Burke, accounts for team strength in its model.) That 32-yarder under duress may have been the most important and impressive throw of the game.
From a Patriots perspective, the easy reaction is to start envisioning a 4-0 start, with Garoppolo serving as prime trade bait in the offseason if Brady maintains his Benjamin Button impression. Of course, there's no guarantee New England would even interested in shopping him in the first place. The Patriots haven't minded splurging on more expensive insurance policies behind Brady, spending (and often wasting) Day 2 draft picks every two to three years. It's just as likely the Pats decide to hang onto a promising quarterback in a league where there aren't enough of those to go around.
Garoppolo's cap hit is a paltry $1.1 million in 2017, and unless he implodes in the next three weeks, you can expect incalculable amounts of time, ink, and bandwidth being spilled on Garoppolo trade rumors. Although that bargain-bin cap hit comes in the final year of his rookie deal, remember that we live in a world where Sam Bradford just garnered a first-round pick, and Brock Osweiler makes $18 million annually.
[ad placeholder 3]
Let's also not discount the depleted offensive line, which held up against old friend Chandler Jones and the rest of Arizona's front. Jones and Markus Golden had their moments off the edge, but while reserve tackles Cameron Fleming and Marcus Cannon weren't particularly good, they also weren't disastrous. Ask Patriots fans who remember January's AFC title game how far merely mediocre offensive line play can go.
Out of Air
Garoppolo is the A-list story coming out of this game, but the secondary storylines are the ones that will impact this season most significantly. The Cardinals' mediocre offensive output was one of the weekend's most surprising developments, and certainly a perturbing one given how Carson Palmer's season ended in 2015.
Granted, Sunday night wasn't close to the level of the disastrous NFC Championship Game, or even the erratic divisional round win over Green Bay. The Cardinals did avoid turnovers, after all, and apart from a Justin Coleman near-interception on the final drive, Palmer didn't really come close to getting picked off.
But maybe that's just the point: a Cardinals offense known for being one of the league's most dangerous and vertically inclined was much more grounded. Last year, Palmer led the league in averaging more than 10.4 air yards per attempt, which helped him finish first in every per-attempt yardage statistic (yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt, etc.). Last night, Palmer averaged 7.3 yards per attempt, which is hardly terrible but would have been his fourth-worst single-game figure in 2015, including the postseason.
It wasn't for a lack of trying. The Patriots' top priority was seemingly to sit back in zone coverage and eliminate as many deep balls as possible. According to the play-by-play, Palmer threw nine passes that traveled more than 15 air yards, and were thus marked as deep. He completed only two of them: a 39-yarder to Michael Floyd to open the second drive of the game and an 18-yarder to Jaron Brown on Arizona's final offensive play of the night. Speed demons John Brown and J.J. Nelson were totally invisible, combining to catch two of their six targets for just 19 yards. When Palmer did push the issue downfield, New England was typically there with safety help to bracket the receiver and squeeze the throwing window:
Palmer mostly stopped trying after halftime, attempting just three passes deeper than 15 yards downfield. The aforementioned completion to Jaron Brown only came in desperate circumstances, when the Cardinals had been pushed out of field goal range and were facing third-and-23. Overall, Arizona averaged just 5.8 yards per play, identical to what they averaged in their last home game against Green Bay. Stunningly, the Cardinals actually haven't been affected much when opposing defenses have gone on the road and limited big plays under Palmer and Bruce Arians. Including Sunday night, Arizona has averaged under 6.0 yards per play in 10 different home games since 2013. The Cardinals had somehow won the previous nine.
|ARI ≤ 6.0 Yds/Play at Home Under Bruce Arians|
|2013||Week 2 vs. DET||-3.6%||5.27||W, 25-21|
|2013||Week 10 vs. HOU||-12.8%||5.35||W, 27-24|
|2013||Week 12 vs. IND||11.5%||5.77||W, 40-11|
|2013||Week 14 vs. STL||31.1%||5.68||W, 30-10|
|2014||Week 3 vs. SF||10.0%||5.54||W, 23-14|
|2014||Week 10 vs. STL||-16.7%||5.08||W, 31-14|
|2014||Week 14 vs. KC||-8.2%||5.63||W, 17-14|
|2015||Week 14 vs. MIN||14.6%||5.95||W, 23-20|
|2015||Div vs. GB||-18.0%||5.84||W, 26-20 (OT)|
|2016||Week 1 vs. NE||14.6% (as of now)||5.83||L, 23-21|
There are a couple instances above where Arizona simply raced out to a huge lead and was running out the clock, plus one Drew Stanton start against the Chiefs. Still, although Sunday wasn't the first time a defense has gone into University of Phoenix Stadium and limited the Cardinals' big-play production, it was the first time an opponent managed to do so while also stealing the win.
The good news for the 2016 Cardinals is that Arizona should be much more successful when defenses do emulate the Patriots' top-down containment strategy. David Johnson was probably the best the player on either side, looking every bit like the No. 1 prospect he was pegged as in Football Outsiders Almanac 2016. Johnson totaled 132 yards from scrimmage on 20 touches, which is probably right around the weekly average he'll post this season as a high-volume back in a prolific offense. His remarkable 45-yard gallop after initially getting stuffed at the line was vaguely reminiscent of a similar run he made on Sunday Night Football last December against the Eagles, albeit without the touchdown to cap things off:
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) September 12, 2016
— NFL (@NFL) December 21, 2015
Sunday obviously wasn't a reaffirmation of Arizona's place as a top-tier Super Bowl contender, but neither did it indicate that the Cards will be condemned to disappointment in 2016. Brandon Williams was predictably picked on defensively, and if Tyrann Mathieu less than nine months removed from a torn ACL is closer to above-average rather than the most destructive defensive back in the league, Arizona's secondary looks a lot less formidable. While these problems certainly matter against the type of competition a team will see in mid-to-late January, it shouldn't necessarily prevent the Cardinals from getting there in the first place.
[ad placeholder 4]
The bigger loss might be in relation to the division rival Seahawks, who barely managed to take care of business in their own home game against an AFC East visitor. We'll see if the Russell Wilson ankle injury becomes a big deal down the road; regardless, if Week 1 is any indication, Seattle may have relapsed into its befuddling habit of starting seasons slowly.
But when picking the NFC West in the preseason, many (including Football Outsiders) pointed to this game as the differentiator between Arizona and Seattle. The schedulers handed the Cardinals what felt like a one-game head-start by gifting them with the Garoppolo-led Patriots at home, while the Seahawks drew the (presumably) Brady-led Pats at Gillette Stadium. Even if Seattle does lose in Foxborough, the Cards have already squandered the one advantage they held in hand coming into the season.
By the VOA
This is still a pure VOA table, as we won't have opponent adjustments for DVOA until after Week 4. The numbers appear to judge the Pats a little harshly, but keep in mind that the Week 1 numbers will look a little strange because of the normalization of league-wide DVOA around 0%. This works fine over the course of a few months, but is going to be a little hinky with only 14 games played. (For those reading this on Tuesday: these stats were computed before Monday Night Football.)
One final side note: Readers may recall the "History of AGS" article that ran on this site before the start of last season, the 10th anniversary of this column. For those wondering, this is now New England's third appearance as a winner in AGS; the Patriots still hold an overall record of 3-13, with only the Saints (3-14) and Jaguars (0-6) holding worse "winning percentages" in these features.
So Jacksonville remains the only team still on the schneid, never appearing in Any Given Sunday as a victorious underdog. The Jags wouldn't have made it over the Sunday night game even if they had completed the comeback against Green Bay. Still, after hanging close with the Packers, Gus Bradley's squad should have opportunities in 2016 to finally appear on the winning side of things here.