FOXBOROUGH — Against the odds, when Danny Woodhead sprinted into the end zone with less than a minute left in Sunday’s game, it appeared that the Patriots would pull off an unlikely comeback against the Arizona Cardinals, improve to 2-0, and extend their streak of never losing a home opener in Gillette Stadium’s history.
A yellow penalty flag changed the course of the final, frantic minute. Rob Gronkowski was called for offensive holding, nullifying Woodhead’s touchdown. The Patriots’ All-Pro tight end had another costly penalty after a 12-yard completion, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a game-winning field-goal attempt from 42 yards.
Enough blame to go around, much of it directed at Gostkowski. But Gronkowski said some of it should fall on his big shoulders — assuming it was a legitimate holding call.
“I felt like it was a clean block. I felt my hands were right inside. I’ve got to look at the film,” Gronkowski said after New England’s 20-18 defeat.
Woodhead scampered up the middle for what would have been a 30-yard touchdown, but Gronkowski was called for the hold 10 yards downfield, which wiped out the score. It didn’t change the location of the ball, though. Still on the 30-yard-line, the Patriots moved inside the 20 with a 12-yard completion to Wes Welker, but Gronkowski then was whistled for a false start. Were the 5 yards costly? Hard to say, but it meant Gostkowski’s winning attempt ultimately would come from 42 yards. Certainly not a chip shot.
In a matter of seconds, Woodhead went from feeling the exhilaration of what might have been a winning touchdown to deflation.
“There’s highs and lows in all games,” Woodhead said. “The tough pill to swallow is that we didn’t score as many points. I had 10 guys out there doing everything they could to give me some space. They were able to give me some space. I tried to do what I could with it. It ended up coming back, and that’s how it went.”
Aaron Hernandez played a big role in Sunday’s outcome — by not being on the field. Injured on the Patriots’ third offensive play when he was rolled into on a completion to Julian Edelman, Hernandez was helped off the field and taken immediately to the locker room. X-rays were negative, but preliminary indications are that Hernandez will miss at least a month with a severe ankle sprain.
His loss was felt Sunday, and forced the Patriots to change plans on the fly. It took a while to find something that worked; New England’s lone touchdown came with 2:06 left in the game.
“Aaron is in there almost every play, so [the game plan] changes quite a bit,” said Welker, who became the franchise leader in career receptions, passing Troy Brown.
“You have to go to a different attack. Today just wasn’t enough.”
One week after the Patriots rushed for 162 yards and allowed just one sack, the Cardinals limited New England to just 90 yards on the ground, sacked Tom Brady four times, and intercepted his first pass. Much of the credit there starts up front.
“That’s one of the better D-lines in the league, period,” said Donald Thomas, who got the start at right guard in place of Dan Connolly. “They’ve got two great [defensive] tackles. Our job was to control them as much as possible. That was the game plan, that’s what we tried to do.”
Stevan Ridley, who bagged the first 100-yard rushing game of his career against the Titans, had 54 yards in the first half. He carried it just seven times after halftime, and finished with 71 yards on 18 carries.
“It’s just however they call the plays,” Ridley said. “The coaches know best, they’re going to put us in the best position to go out there and win the game. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t good enough today as a team.”
The most dangerous weapon on Arizona’s offense was held to one of his least-productive days in the NFL.
Receiver Larry Fitzgerald was thrown to five times, but he only caught one pass for 4 yards. It was his worst game, by yardage, since a one-catch, 2-yard game against the Giants in 2004, his rookie season.
“That’s great, but ultimately we didn’t do enough in order to stop them,” Patriots safety Steve Gregory said.
Jones a force
Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones again made his presence felt. He drew a holding penalty in the second quarter, then forced a fumble on the Cardinals’ next series when he hit scrambling quarterback Kevin Kolb. The ball flew directly to Patriots defensive back Tavon Wilson, giving Jones two forced fumbles in two games. He added five tackles and a quarterback hurry . . . Connolly, who suffered a head injury against the Titans, missed practice Wednesday, and was one of seven Patriots listed as questionable on the team’s final injury report, was active for the game but did not play. Aside from backup quarterback Ryan Mallett, cornerback Ras-I Dowling was the only other Patriot not to play. The team’s inactives were running back Shane Vereen, receiver Greg Salas, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, tight end Daniel Fells, and defensive linemen Jake Bequette, Justin Francis, and Marcus Forston. As expected, Cardinals quarterback John Skelton was also inactive, leaving Ryan Lindley as the backup to Kolb . . . Brown, the 19th and newest member of the Patriots Hall of Fame, was recognized before the game as an honorary captain, and again at halftime with an on-field ceremony, during which he caught one more pass from Drew Bledsoe, taking it into the end zone. Wearing his red Hall of Fame jacket, Brown was also on the sideline before the game, greeting the Patriots as they retreated to the locker room after warmups . . . Tom Brady passed Johnny Unitas for 13th place on the career passing yardage list. He now has 40,531, and needs 21 more to catch Joe Montana . . . Cardinal Todd Heap passed Mike Ditka for career reception yards by a tight end.Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.