FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Patriots came into the regular season expecting their biggest test during Tom Brady’s four-game suspension to be in their opener at Arizona.
That task was complicated by the absence of tight end Rob Gronkowski, as well as two more missing pieces on an offensive line that had already went through an offseason makeover.
But after leaving the desert Sunday with a narrow victory that featured lots of late-game poise by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, New England is feeling confident heading into a much-less-daunting schedule over the next three weeks, beginning with a Miami Dolphins team that hasn’t won in Foxborough since 2008.
The confidence is also high for a franchise that continues to have lots of regular-season success in the rare times Brady hasn’t been the starting quarterback.
The Patriots are 11-5 in regular-season games without him since he went down with a torn ACL in the season opener in 2008. Matt Cassel played the rest of that season, going 10-5. After Sunday’s performance, the prospect of Garoppolo giving New England a 4-0 start seems more possible.
Team captain Matt Slater said preparation played a big role in the Patriots adjusting with key players sidelined Sunday.
“That ‘next man up’ motto has been real big around here in my time here,” Slater said. “I’ve seen it time and time again. And obviously, I’ve seen it with a couple of quarterbacks in my time here.”
Much of the Patriots’ offensive success Sunday night came in part because of their command on third down, when they converted on 10 of their 16 opportunities for the game.
Garoppolo was certainly a big part of it. He displayed calmness in the pocket throughout, and used both his arm and feet to extend drives.
He had five throws that went for 10 yards or more on third down, and also scrambled for 10 yards on another.
His biggest throw of the night came in the fourth quarter after the Cardinals had taken a 21-20 lead. The Patriots found themselves facing in a third-and-15 right off the bat on their ensuing possession.
Garoppolo dropped back and initially couldn’t find an open receiver. He spun in the pocket and gave receiver Danny Amendola enough time to find a crease on the left side of the Cardinals’ zone.
Garoppolo stepped up and delivered a dart for a 32-yard gain that put the Patriots in Arizona territory. The drive ended in Stephen Gostkowski’s 32-yard field goal for the winning points.
“I would say, going back to the preparation, the coaches did a great job giving us the game plan going into it on third down, breaking it down for us, simplifying it,” Garoppolo said. “It makes it a lot easier on us when you have good coaches like that.”
He also had his pick of targets to throw to. Without Gronkowski, held out because of a sore hamstring, Garoppolo spread his 24 completions to six receivers. Seven if you count a ball tipped at the line that he caught himself and was able to turn into a 3-yard gain.
It’s probably why Belichick scoffed at the idea that the offense was at all watered down for Garoppolo in his first regular-season start.
“I think Jim does a good job in the pocket. He’s got good vision,” Belichick said. “He saw a couple of good opportunities to run. Then he saw a couple of other opportunities to slide in the pocket and extend the play. … He doesn’t hang on to the ball. He gets it out of there on time. But if things are covered, he’s made good decisions.”