FOXBOROUGH — There have been more disastrous home openers for the Patriots in the Bill Belichick epoch — 2008 and Tom Brady’s wounded knee comes to mind — but this was a Bloody Sunday with bad omens, bad football, and a bad injury for Belichick’s boys, who fell, 20-18, to the Arizona Cardinals at Gillette Stadium.
The bigger loss than the game, a thoroughly uninspiring contest the Patriots had no business winning, was watching tight end Aaron Hernandez leave with a severe right ankle injury in the first quarter.
Apparently, he took the Patriots offense with him. They didn’t score a touchdown until there was 2:06 left in the game, cutting the Cardinals’ lead to 20-18 and avoiding being barred from the end zone at Gillette for the first time since 2003, as Brady found Rob Gronkowski for a 5-yard score. The 2-point conversion attempt to tie — like the day — went awry for the Patriots.
The game began inauspiciously when the Patriots’ first offensive snap at home in the 2012 season was intercepted by Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson. It ended conspicuously with a missed 42-yard game-winning field goal attempt off the foot of Stephen Gostkowski, who had booted four earlier field goals, including 51- and 53-yarders, with six seconds left.
What happened in between resulted in the Patriots (1-1) losing a home opener at Gillette Stadium for the first time, and losing the first home game of the year for the first time since 2001, a 10-3 loss to the Jets, better known as the Mo Lewis Game.
Let’s get something straight. Gostkowski may have missed an opportunity to win the game Sunday, but he was not the reason they lost it. The die was cast before Gostkowski Vanderjagt-ed the potential game-winner wide left.
The Patriots’ offense looked like it was full of Red Sox call-ups. The special teams surrendered a blocked punt that led to Arizona’s first touchdown and a 13-9 Cardinals lead with 8:52 left in the third quarter. The defense was satisfactory, allowing 245 yards of offense and forcing a pair of turnovers, but it benefitted from facing Kevin Kolb, who has the composure of Calvin Schiraldi and flees the pocket if he sees his shadow.
“Yeah, we didn’t play very good,” said left guard Logan Mankins. “Not scoring a touchdown until the fourth quarter, kicking field goals, penalties, pressures, negative runs, the offense, we didn’t bring our best game, and it really showed.”
Gostkowski’s miss was not even the most deflating play of the game for the Patriots, not in the big picture of the season. That happened on the second play of their second drive, when Hernandez had his right ankle rolled up by teammate Julian Edelman and was lost for the day.
Hernandez hobbled to the sideline and then needed help getting down the stairs to the locker room. He left the stadium with his foot in a protective boot.
The loss of Hernandez raised Arizona’s hopes and razed the Patriots’ offensive game plan. They had 6 points and 129 yards of offense at the half. They finished with 18 points and 387 yards of offense, but went just 5 of 15 on third down.
“Aaron is in there almost every play, so it changes quite a bit,” said Welker, who was freed from exile in Hernandez’s absence and had five catches for 95 yards to become the team’s all-time leading pass catcher. “You have to go to a different attack and go out there and play the way we need to and execute the way we need to, and today just wasn’t enough.”
Gronk might be the Patriots’ tight end who garners all the highlights and headlines, magazine covers, and red carpet invites, but it is Hernandez who makes the offense go. His versatility allows the Patriots to keep defensive opponents off balance.
They can change formations without having to change personnel because Hernandez can play out wide as a wide receiver or in the slot, or flexed out as a tight end, or in line as a tight end, or even lined up in the backfield as a running back.
Take him away and a playbook that looks as thick as Dostoyevsky shrivels down to cliff notes.
“When he went down it took away a lot of things they are able to do,” said ex-Patriot James Sanders. “It’s unfortunate for them, but it helped us out as a unit. I just pray that he’s healthy.”
Hernandez is quickly becoming the Jacoby Ellsbury of Foxborough. He can do everything but consistently stay on the field.
Perhaps, Hernandez’s loss wouldn’t hurt as much today if the Patriots had been able to walk out of Gillette victorious.
The deficit was 20-9 with 7:56 left in the fourth before they scored on back-to-back drives. Brady was 14 of 25 for 150 yards with an interception after three quarters. He was 14 of 21 for 166 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter alone.
The Cardinals certainly tried to hand the game over — literally. Trying to run down the clock, Arizona running back Ryan Williams was stripped by Brandon Spikes, setting up the Patriots at the Arizona 30 with 1:01 left.
It appeared the Patriots had crafted their usual improbable escape when Danny Woodhead scored on a 30-yard touchdown run, but Gronkowski negated the play with a holding penalty (still love those replacement refs, Patriots fans?).
That left it up to Gostkowski.
“It’s just really unfortunate that I couldn’t come through at the end,” said Gostkowski. “I had a chance to make a big impact on the game and it turned south.”
Due south was the direction for the Patriots for the entire ill-fated day. Now, it’s up to Belichick to get them pointed back in the right direction.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.