Every athlete in every sport has uttered the exaggerated cliché: Nobody gave us a chance.
When the Cardinals traveled to Foxborough, Mass., to take on the defending AFC champion Patriots on Sunday, exaggeration wasn’t necessary. New England hadn’t lost a home opener since 2001 and had never lost one at Gillette Stadium. With Tom Brady behind center, the Pats were a stunning 35-1 in their last 36 regular-season home starts.
“It’s not easy to come in here,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “Nobody really gave us a chance.”
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If you were looking for a gauge on the Cardinals’ rising defense, you got it Sunday in an improbable 20-18 win. The Cardinals held Brady to one touchdown pass while intercepting him once, sacking him four times and limiting the Patriots running game to 90 yards.
If you were looking for another reason Kevin Kolb should be the Cardinals starting quarterback next week against the Eagles, there were plenty of bullet points, from his solid game-management skills and his serviceable 82.3 quarterback rating to his ability to extend plays with his feet and avoid costly interceptions (although he did have one fumble Sunday).
But if you were looking for a relaxing end to this game after free safety Kerry Rhodes batted away a potential game-tying two-point pass intended for Rob Gronkowski, well, you haven’t been watching this team.
The Cards should have been able to run out most of the clock after taking over deep in their own territory. But on third down — on the last carry before a punt would have given the Patriots the ball back in their own territory with about 20 seconds left — running back Ryan Williams took a pitch while running left, secured the ball with both hands, then coughed it up on a big hit that seemingly ripped away victory and ripped out the Cardinals’ hearts.
New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski had already booted field goals of 51 and 53 yards to make him a perfect 6 for 6 this season. The 42-yarder — from the middle of the field after Brady took a knee to set it up in perfect position — looked like a chip shot.
Naturally, he missed badly to the left, sending the Cardinals’ sideline into utter pandemonium while sending Arizona home with a 2-0 record that has significantly cooled the fire beneath Whisenhunt’s coaching seat.
The Cardinals are now tied with the Patriots for the best record in the NFL over the past 11 games at 9-2. Every one of those nine wins has been by six points or fewer; five of them have been by three points or fewer. Four of those wins came in overtime.
“It’s crazy, it really is nuts,” Kolb said. “It seems to be just our vibe. As long as they keep falling into the ‘W’ column, we’re good.”
The coming week should be pull of positive vibes at the Cardinals’ complex in Tempe, but it won’t be without distractions. The first question Whisenhunt is likely to hear at his Monday morning press conference will be this: Has Kolb won the starting job?
Whisenhunt is sure to deflect it, and there were certainly flaws in Kolb’s game Sunday. He missed tight end Todd Heap on what would have been a touchdown pass early. He missed LaRod Stephens-Howling on a screen that was well set up for a big gain deep into Patriots territory. He also fumbled in his own territory.
But Kolb still completed 15 of 27 passes in the Cards’ conservative offense, and he posted a higher QB rating (82.3) than his counterpart (79.6), the guy with three Super Bowl rings, five AFC championships and a spot reserved in Canton, Ohio.
Most important — and this is the measuring stick Cardinals fans have used to support injured, erstwhile starter John Skelton — Kolb won the game. He won a road game. He won a road game in perhaps the most difficult road environment in the NFL. How can Whisenhunt not consider playing the guy the Cards paid a king’s ransom to acquire? How can he risk messing with the momentum this team has built, first from Kolb’s heroics in Week 1 against Seattle and now in Foxborough?
“We knew what kind of game this was going to be,” said Kolb, who had a 5-yard touchdown run to cap a nine-play, 42-yard drive early in the fourth quarter that gave Arizona a 20-9 lead. “We’ve been stressing it all week: stay patient don’t get greedy … take it to the fourth quarter, and when we get there, we will make plays when we need to make plays.”
For that opportunity, Kolb can thank his defense and special teams. The latter produced a huge third-quarter punt block by Quentin Groves at the New England 2-yard line that led to Kolb’s 2-yard TD pass to Andre Roberts. The former was the driving force behind this victory — and will be the driving force behind this team all season.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton called this game a measuring stick for his unit. It’s now fair to call the Cardinals defense one of the league’s elite after this showing. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett was a game-plan wrecking force again, tipping a ball that led to a Patrick Peterson interception and disrupting the line of scrimmage all day.
Peterson had the pick and was solid in coverage, the run defense was stout and linebacker Daryl Washington continued to justify his shiny new contract with a team-high 13 tackles (one for a loss) and a pass breakup.
“They have a good defense, and they certainly put a lot of pressure on you to make good plays. They really don’t give you easy ones,” Brady said. “We made some; we just didn’t make enough at the end of the day.”
The small-market Cardinals may not spark a mass movement of converts with this landmark win, but if they can follow the Foxborough formula this season, they’ll have a chance in any environment.