The Patriots never lose these games.
Think about it: When the Patriots, with Tom Brady at quarterback, lose regular-season games at home, it's usually to an NFL heavyweight, an A-Lister.
2011: 7-1, only loss to the Giants, who you might remember ended the season on a winning streak.
2008: No Brady
You have to go back to Sept. 24, 2006, to find the last time Brady lost a home game to a team that didn't make the playoffs. Jake Plummer and the Broncos 17, Patriots 7.
Now, the Arizona Cardinals might very well end up in the playoffs; they could be a 12-win team for all we know. Certainly there was plenty to be impressed with, particularly with a defense that looked plenty fast and aggressive on Sunday.
But let's be fair: The Patriots have to beat the Arizona Cardinals at home. And, on one side of the ball, they did more than enough to win. The defense held the Cardinals to 245 yards of offense, 3.2 yards per carry, and made Larry Fitzgerald a total non-factor. OK, we know now there is a reason Kevin Kolb lost his job to John Skelton, but all you can do is stop the guys on the field, and for the second week in a row the defense did exactly that.
But Tom Brady and the offense couldn't hold up their end.
If you want to make excuses for Brady on Sunday it's not tough to do. He lost Aaron Hernandez early. There are still ongoing communication issues with Brandon Lloyd. The whole Wes Welker/Julian Edelman dynamic. A right side of the offensive line that was handled by the Cardinals. A questionable holding call at the end of the game against Danny Woodhead. A missed field goal.
All legitimate gripes, no question.
But Brady was still off on Sunday, not close to sharp. He was intercepted on his first pass of the game and never really got in rhythm until late in the fourth quarter (how much of that can be placed at the feet of Josh McDaniels is another fair ask). The numbers, at the end, looked OK: 28-of-46, 316 yards, a touchdown against the INT.
But it wasn't enough. This was the kind of game in which Brady needs to carry the Patriots to victory, do just enough to win. I suppose you could argue that if Gostkowski makes the field goal at the end Brady would have done exactly that. But how about the drives that led to successful Gostkowski field goals?
Third quarter, first-and-10 at Arizona 33: Brady incomplete to Edelman, Brady incomplete to Ridley, Brady incomplete to Welker. Bring on Gostkowski, who makes a 51-yard FG into the wind.
(That third-down pass to Welker was an example of Brady doing something you never saw pre-Bernard Pollard -- happy feet, acting like he's surrounded by pressure when none is there.)
Fourth quarter, first-and-10 at Arizona 35, 7:56 left: Brady incomplete to Welker, Woodhead for no gain, Brady incomplete to Gronkowksi. Gostkowksi nails a 53-yarder to cut the lead to 20-12, a must-make kick at the time.
There were chances. This game didn't need to be this close. If Brady is Brady the Patriots would have closed out the game earlier. If he's one of the two or three best quarterbacks on the planet -- and I think he is -- he has to do more than he did on Sunday against the Cardinals.
Blame Gostkowksi for the miss at the end, of course, but blame Brady and the offense for putting Gostkowski in that position.
QUARTERBACK -- C-
One other note: Whenever the Patriots lose an offensive coordinator -- and the last three have landed head coaching jobs; obviously it's a terrific springboard -- all we hear is that it doesn't really matter, that Tom Brady is in reality the de facto offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots. It's a theory that is tough to challenge, given his greatness, the fact that he's the one constant offensively over the last decade and the importance of his position. When Bill O'Brien was hired at Penn State was anyone worried about the offense of the 2012 Patriots? How about when McDaniels left for Denver? Nope and nope. Point is, if you aren't going to put a lot of emphasis on the offensive coordinator when things are going well -- going understandably with In Brady We Trust -- how you can you blame the offensive coordinator when things are lousy? If Brady is the de facto offensive coordinator he can't hold the position just in the good times.
RUNNING BACKS -- C
Stevan Ridley (18 carries, 71 yards) looked exactly like the Stevan Ridley in Week 1 during the first half, rushing for 54 yards on 11 carries, also adding a 16-yard catch (in the opening drive of the second quarter, Ridley picked up 30 yards on four straight rushes). He was not a factor in the second half, picking up just 17 yards on seven carries. Some of that can be blamed on questionable play-calling, some of it on a shaky right side of the offensive line, but all Ridley produced in the fourth quarter was a single rush for -4 yards.
Danny Woodhead (eight carries, 18 yards) had the 30-yard TD rush wiped out by the holding call on Gronkowski, which would have clearly salvaged another unimpressive performance. I understand the Patriots aren't exactly the 1972 Dolphins in terms of running back depth, but why does Woodhead have a sizable role in this offense? I'm writing this while understanding that this is a backup who has averaged over five yards per carry with the Patriots. Could be I'm overreacting on this one, to be fair. There's really noting better than a wishy-washy take on a subject that requires absolutely zero guts, is there?
RECEIVERS -- C
Wasn't everyone waiting for THAT Rob Gronkowski (six catches, 75 yards and a TD) to show up, or at least be featured? He was targeted nine times on Sunday, seven coming in the fourth quarter. It's a broken record, but the linebackers for the Cardinals -- Paris Lenon and Daryl Washington in particular -- had no shot one-one-one with Gronkowski in the final minutes. Gronkowski also beat Washington deep in the second quarter, but Brady's throw was just a little off (not catchable, but not a bad deep ball by Brady). Gronkowski was able to beat Kerry Rhodes for the fourth-quarter TD, but Rhodes just did a nice job of staying in front of Gronkowski on the failed two-point conversation.
We have all been briefed on the Wes Welker/Julian Edelman drama. Bottom line: The reason for more Edelman (five catches, 50 yards) and less Welker still eludes me. Welker had a crucial third-down drop on the sideline in the third quarter, would've been a first down. The next play was the blocked punt that set up the first Arizona touchdown. Welker (five catches, 95 yards) was targeted 11 times and made a pair of impact plays -- a 25-yard diving catch at the end of the first half and a 36-yarder over the middle to start the second half.
Brandon Lloyd (eight catches, 60 yards) was able to get open deep for the second straight week on Sunday. In Tennessee, I thought the inability to make the catch was Lloyd's fault (wasn't a perfect pass, but Lloyd turned too quickly and was basically running backwards for the final five yards; if he stays in stride he has a chance) but it was all on Brady on Sunday. Awful throw -- Jerry Rice in 1985 isn't making the catch. But Lloyd -- targeted a team-high 13 times Sunday -- has been solid if unspectacular through two weeks as he continues to figure things out (still some miscommunication issues with Brady, highlighted by a crossed route on a third-down play in the third quarter). Put it another way: He's already contributed more than Ochocinco did in 2011. He had a pair of superb sideline catches in the fourth quarter, including one that was challenged by Arizona but correctly upheld.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- D+
Let's hand out some plaudits to start, OK? Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui both had solid blocks to help Ridley on his 20-yard carry, Sebastian Vollmer had a clean block to spring Woodhead on the TD run that wasn't a TD run, Logan Mankins got out in front of Ridley on his 16-yard catch and pancaked Washington.
But both Marcus Cannon and Donald Thomas struggled mightily, and it was never more apparent than in the second quarter. Following a Chandler Jones forced fumble on Kevin Kolb and recovery by Tavon Wilson, the Patriots had the ball at their own 48-yard line in a 6-6 game with 6:04 left in the half. It seemed a classic spot for Brady to go down the field and take command of the game. Never happened.
Instead, we saw Brady sacked by Sam Acho on first down (Acho beat Hoomanawanui on the play) to set up a second-and-20, until a Thomas false start made it second-and-25. Quentin Groves then beat Cannon for a sack, which led to a third-and-32 handoff to Danny Woodhead for five yards. Thomas was also to blame for a nine-yard loss by Woodhead on a third-and-6 at the Arizona 30-yard line in the third quarter, as Darnell Dockett basically ran over the guard to make the tackle, which ended a semi-promising drive and knocked the Patriots out of field goal position. Think Brian Waters would be an upgrade?
DEFENSIVE LINE -- A-
In the opening series of the second quarter, Chandler Jones had a tackle for a five-yard loss on Ryan Williams on first down, beat D'Anthony Batiste and nearly sacked Kolb on third down, drawing a holding penalty on Batiste (third time Jones has forced a holding penalty this season) and then beat Batiste again on third down after the penalty and hit Kolb once more, leading to an incomplete pass. Throw in the forced fumble and two more pressures on Kolb and you've got another impact game from Jones, who is the story of the young season for this team. It's too early to arrive at any conclusion north or south of any expectation, but it would be disingenuous at best not to be excited at what Jones could turn out to be. He's the most promising pass-rusher in New England since Andre Tippett, plain and simple.
Kyle Love had three tackles and pressured Kolb on a Rob Ninkovich sack. Vince Wilfork recovered the Williams fumble, had four tackles and was constantly disrupting the Arizona running game despite a steady double team. Ron Brace had a tackle for a loss as this group held the Cardinals to just 3.2 yards per carry. Two hugely impressive weeks for the defensive line.
LINEBACKERS -- A-
Jerod Mayo (nine tackles) had the unquestioned wallop of the game, blasting Early Doucet over the middle at the end of the third quarter (great job by Doucet to hold on and convert a first down). He also had a couple of pressures on Kolb, nearly forcing an interception in the fourth quarter. Rob Ninkovich had a third-down sack in the first quarter and finished with four tackles. Brandon Spikes (seven tackles) forced the fumble on Ryan Williams, putting his helmet right on the ball to give the Patriots a chance with just over a minute left. Spikes also delivered a wicked shot to Larry Fitzgerald in the first quarter and brought down LaRod Stephens-Howling for a loss in the next drive, and had a pair of hits on Kolb (though he was flagged for a questionable roughing the passer call in the third quarter). Spikes was also handled by center Lyle Sendlein on the Kolb TD keeper.
SECONDARY -- B
Larry Fitzgerald: One catch, four yards. Devin McCourty spent plenty of time on Fitzgerald (with plenty of help) and passed the test, stopping Fitzgerald (with no help) from catching a fade in the end zone in the first quarter. Kyle Arrington whiffed a tackle on Heap that led to a 22-yard pickup, a play that also saw Steve Gregory flagged for hitting Heap out of bounds. The Mayo hit on Doucet came after Arrington was beaten by the wideout on a third-down play in the third quarter. It looked like Williams wanted to go outside on the rush that led to the fumble, but Patrick Chung came in and forced him back inside, setting up Spikes. Sterling Moore was in coverage on Andre Roberts for the third-quarter, two-yard TD catch and was unable to recover in time after a pick from Heap (Chung was in coverage on Heap).
SPECIAL TEAMS -- D+
Stephen Gostkowski drilled a pair of field goals over 50 yards but badly hooked the one that mattered most, a 42-yarder that never had a chance. I have no idea if pressure was a factor -- he had made 34 straight in the fourth quarter, but that was a really uncharacteristic miss. Before that miss, the key moment in the game came with 9:48 remaining in the third quarter. With the Patriots holding a 9-6 lead, they faced a fourth-and-9 at their own 11-yard line. Zoltan Mesko's punt was then blocked by Quentin Groves, with the Cardinals taking over at the New England 2-yard line. Nate Ebner was badly beaten by Groves on the edge on the block. Three plays later, Kolb connected with Waters for the TD. Nothing of note from the return or coverage teams (Patrick Peterson returned just one punt for three yards) and Mesko averaged 34.4 yards on five punts.
COACHING -- C-
Edelman over Welker is a decision that baffles us all, a titanic head-scratcher, but with Aaron Hernandez out for at least the next couple of weeks it probably won't be much of a factor. Both will get plenty of snaps. Tough to criticize a defensive game plan that completely shut down Fitzgerald, allowed just 245 yards of offense and 20 points (seven coming on a two-yard drive after the fumble), but offensively there were plenty of questions.
Why was Gronkowski not targeted until the fourth quarter? Why was Ridley out of the mix in the second half? Why so much Woodhead? Also this: Anyone else think the Patriots wasted a timeout challenging the catch by Rob Housler at the end of the third quarter? The risk wasn't worth the reward there. You can't give up a timeout (which might've been nice to have on that final drive) in a game you are losing late in the third quarter in hopes of winning a challenge on a seven-yard gainer on first down.