TEMPE, Ariz. - One of these days a rising team like the Arizona Cardinals is going to come out of the blue and beat the defending Super Bowl champions.
That day was not yesterday. Nor does it appear that day is anywhere in sight.
The Cardinals might have been pesky and tough, the 100-degree heat on the field posed some problems, and the emotional halftime tribute to Pat Tillman gave the Patriots all they could handle, but New England has made winning a habit and an art form.
The Patriots probably should have given the Cardinals a thumping, but still extended their winning streak to 17 with a 23-12 triumph over the Cardinals before a crowd of 51,557.
The Patriots had the majority of the crowd behind them in what was a quasi home game, and they certainly had all the sexy statistics in their favor, including Corey Dillon’s 158 yards on 32 carries, and David Givens’s 118 receiving yards on six catches. The Cardinals’ Josh McCown was sacked five times in the first half, held to a 33.7 quarterback rating, and the Patriots defense held the Cardinals to 167 total yards, only 50 net yards rushing.
The defense was out there for 11 Cardinals possessions. Four of them were three-and-out, two of them netted negative yardage, and only two drives were more than 40 yards in length as New England held Arizona to one touchdown.
It also took two Neil Rackers field goals of 51 and 52 yards in the first half to put the Cardinals into double-digit scoring for the day.
“I have to say congratulations to Bill Belichick and his team,” said Cardinals coach Dennis Green. “Winning 17 games in a row is absolutely incredible. It was a very physical football game.”
The win, which will be followed by a week off, wasn’t good enough for some of the Patriots, especially not quarterback Tom Brady, who threw two touchdown passes to Daniel Graham but also threw two interceptions.
“We left a lot of plays out there and we have stuff we’re going to have to correct,” Brady said. “I think the way we’re playing is not going to be good enough much longer.”
The day wasn’t that easy for the 2-0 Patriots, but it was never that hard, either.
The Cardinals were not quite ready to unseat the Super Bowl champions, just as the Patriots were not quite ready to allow a young, rising team to rise too fast, too soon, at their expense.
“We just wanted to be aggressive, come after them hard, make their quarterback make some tough reads, and stop the run,” said Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour, who was a stalwart on the three-man line along with Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren, who were rotated with Keith Traylor and Jarvis Green later on.
The Cardinals (0-2) mounted their best drive of the game for almost eight minutes of the third quarter, going 80 yards after Adam Vinatieri had hit a 29-yard field goal, one of his three on the day that came after Dillon’s 2-yard touchdown run had been nullified by an illegal motion call on tight end Christian Fauria.
The Cardinals made three first downs, with big plays of 27 yards from McCown to tight end Freddie Jones and from McCown to running back Josh Scobey for 42 yards to the Patriot 5.
After Ty Law was called for pass interference on Bryant Johnson in the end zone, placing the ball at the 1, Smith powered in to cut the gap to 5 points, 17-12. The Cardinals went for 2, and couldn’t take advantage of the Patriots having only 10 men on the field as McCown had a receiver open in the end zone and never saw him.
Law quipped afterward that he’ll continue to be flagged “as long as the networks don’t complain about the length of the games,” but as it turned out, the penalty didn’t haunt the Patriots as the defense tightened up and forced the Cardinals into consecutive three-and-outs in the fourth quarter.
Good fortune was certainly a part of the win.
On their first scoring drive, Patrick Pass caught a little swing pass from Brady and gained 30 yards before a bunch of Cardinals forced the ball loose. As the ball trickled down the field, toward the left sideline, two Cardinals and one Patriot converged. It appeared to be an Arizona recovery.
But somehow Deion Branch squeezed in between the two and came up with the ball just inside the 10. Brady capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Graham.
That successful series seemed to illustrate the fact that the Patriots were superior in all aspects. The Cardinals weren’t struggling for lack of trying; they were simply undermanned. The Patriots’ defense began to rise up, pressing McCown into a bad interception when he tried to force it to rookie Larry Fitzgerald.
Eugene Wilson picked it off at the 44 and returned it to the Arizona 30.
Before you could check the temperature, Brady found a wide-open Graham for a 19-yard touchdown pass on third and 19 just 1:34 into the second quarter.
“It’s just like we drew it up in practice,” Graham said. “Nothing different. We practiced that play all week in practice, and we went out and executed it.” Brady added, “Not surprised at all, that’s how we drew it up.”
The defense was on display in the second quarter after Dillon fumbled a pitch from Brady and the Cardinals recovered and ran it to the Patriots 11. They had first and 10 at the 11 and wound up with a fourth and 32, and needed a 51-yard field goal from Rackers just to salvage 3 points. There were big sacks by Willie McGinest (9-yard loss) and Rodney Harrison (15-yard loss) against McCown, who was getting hit hard.
The Patriots made some mistakes, which didn’t go over big on the sideline. In fact, the usually mistake-free Brady threw an ill-advised ball as he was being hit by nose tackle Russell Davis, forcing an underthrow to Givens. Cornerback David Macklin picked it off and returned it to the Patriots 42.
The defense was stingy, holding Arizona to a three-and-out. Rackers set up a yard deeper and made the 52-yard field goal, making it a 14-6 game as the temperature, which was 89 at game time, reached 100 degrees on the field.
A game that certainly appeared would be a blowout after the Patriots went out to a 14-0 lead, wasn’t. The Cardinals were young, tough, and fast, as advertised. They just didn’t have enough experience or manpower to match the Patriots, who are in a habit of winning.
A habit that’s hard to break.