Cardinals 20, Patriots 18
Strategy: Offensively, the Patriots were pretty balanced until they fell behind by two scores early in the fourth quarter. They ran the ball fairly well with second-year running back Stevan Ridley and relied on a quick, short passing game to move the ball. Defensively, they were able to stop the run and pressure Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb with a four-man rush. They often dropped their linebackers, kept their safeties deep and mixed up their coverage down the field.
Personnel: Slot receiver extraordinaire Wes Welker didn’t start, but he ended up being used often in place of Aaron Hernandez after the tight end got hurt in the first quarter (Hernandez isn’t expected to play Sunday). They used single-back formations almost exclusively. On defense, the Patriots stayed in their base package about half the time. Rookies Chandler Jones and Donta’ Hightower started and played most of the snaps.
What went right: The Patriots did a good job up front, with Jones and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork harassing the Cardinals offensive line. They only had one sack, but they made Kolb uncomfortable without having to blitz and forced him to nickel-and-dime them. They also held wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald to one catch for 4 yards. Tom Brady spread the ball around and completed three or more passes to five players as the Patriots generated 387 yards of total offense.
What went wrong: The Patriots didn’t get tight end Rob Gronkowski involved until the fourth quarter, when he had five catches for 66 yards and a touchdown. They struggled to protect Brady at times and he wasn’t connecting with his wide receivers down the field. They allowed Cardinals tight end Todd Heap to catch five passes for 62 yards, a good sign for Ravens tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. And despite all that, New England could have won the game late, but a holding penalty on Gronkowski negated a Danny Woodhead touchdown and Stephen Gostowski missed a 42-yard field goal.
Turning point: The Gronkowski penalty or the Gostowski miss would also qualify, but the Patriots put themselves in a hole in the third quarter when they allowed Quentin Groves to block a Zoltan Mesko punt from their end zone. With Mesko attempting a directional punt to his left to keep the ball away from Patrick Peterson, Groves attacked that edge and got his hand on the punt. The ball bounced out of bounds at the New England two-yard line and the Cardinals took a 13-9 lead with a touchdown three plays later. They expanded it to an 11-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
X-factor: Jones, the young brother of Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones, was dominant at times at right defensive end. He had one tackle for a loss, pressured Kolb on a few plays and forced Kolb to fumble when the quarterback tried to scramble on one play. It looks like he will line up against Ravens left tackle Michael Oher, who will have to deal with his strength and speed.