There’s no reason the Patriots can’t go 4-0 without Brady

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Devin McCourty and his defensive mates brought Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals down to earth.
Devin McCourty and his defensive mates brought Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals down to earth.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

GLENDALE, Ariz. — It took all of one career start for Jimmy Garoppolo to climb to the top of the non-Tom Brady quarterback chart in the AFC East.

Comparing Garoppolo's effort filling in for the Deflategate-banished Brady in the Patriots' 23-21 victory over Arizona Sunday night to the rest of the quarterback play in the division in Week 1 makes the "G" in Jimmy G stand for giddy.

Buffalo's Tyrod Taylor threw for 111 yards in a loss to Baltimore. Miami's Ryan Tannehill flunked Clock Management 101 in a close loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Ryan Fitzpatrick, the QB of the NYJ, sealed New York's defeat with an interception.


With the NFL's resident coach laureate and a deep and talented defense, the Patriots don't need Garoppolo to play like a franchise quarterback. What he did on the road against Arizona, the best team the Patriots will face during Brady's forced four-game vacation, is more than sufficient to maintain divisional eminence.

Why stop there? Jimmy G is more highly thought of after Game 1. In commensurate fashion, the expectations for the Patriots' four-game stint without Brady should be elevated too. With Brady on NFL house arrest, the initial expectations were that if the Patriots could tread water at 2-2 it would be a success. But after clipping the Cardinals, the Patriots need to think big, Brady banner big.

There is no reason Garoppolo can't turn a 4-0 team over to Brady when he returns from suspension on Oct. 3.

The next three games for the Patriots are all at home — where they have the psychological advantage of opponents being concerned about the temperature of their Gatorade and Bill Belichick's omniscience — starting with the home opener Sunday against Miami.

The Dolphins have beaten the Patriots three years in a row, but those wins came in South Florida. Tannehill was sacked five times by Seattle and remains the Miami Mannequin. He looks like a real franchise quarterback, but he's just a store model.


Then it's a Thursday night game with former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien and his Houston Texans. O'Brien and his staff of ex-Pats know the Patriot Protocol well. The Texans have upgraded at quarterback with Brock Osweiler. But I'll take Belichick on a short week. Plus, the odious Thursday night games favor the home team, which doesn't lose a day of preparation to travel.

The final Brady-free game is against Rex Ryan and his blustery Buffalo Bills. Vociferous Rex will spin the dial defensively to try to get Garoppolo's head spinning. He has gotten Brady's brain buffering before. But Ryan has lost his gut and his gasconade since his Jets upset the Patriots in the 2010 season playoffs. He has beaten them just once since then.

The reason for this view isn't just the steady and heady play of Garoppolo. Jimmy G's performance (24 of 33 for 264 yards and a touchdown) was light-years ahead of what Matt Cassel did in his first start filling in for Brady in 2008.

But like Cassel, who inherited a team that had gone 16-0 in 2007, Garoppolo doesn't have to carry the team in Brady's absence.

The most impressive unit for the Patriots in Arizona was the defense. They contained a Cardinals offense that averaged 30.6 points per game last season, second in the NFL, and ranked first in total offense at 408.3 yards per game.


The Patriots defenders knew they didn't have the safety net of TB12, and they responded.

Arizona has an embarrassment of riches. Larry Fitzgerald is running a go route to Canton. John Brown had a 1,000-yard receiving season in 2015. Michael Floyd had a 1,000-yard season in 2013 and has gone over 800 yards receiving with six TD catches each of the last two seasons.

Sure, the Patriots defense got bailed out a bit by a missed field goal attempt that would have been a game-winner. But the only reason the Cardinals were in that position was because the New England offense turned the ball over twice, including a Garoppolo fumble that led to Arizona's first touchdown.

The Cardinals' second touchdown came after LeGarrette Blount fumbled at the Patriots 33 in the third quarter with New England up, 17-7.

For the most part, the Patriots defense muffled an Arizona offense that subscribes to the Big Bang theory of offense.

The Cardinals' lone long touchdown drive, a seven-play, 79-yard march, was made possible by a brilliant 45-yard run from David Johnson to the 12. Fantasy darling Johnson mustered 44 yards on his other 15 carries.

I interrupt this column for a public service announcement: Chris Long can still play. His signing looks like a classic Belichick career revival.

The former No. 2 overall pick was immense against the Cardinals. He and Jabaal Sheard more than made up for the absence of Rob Ninkovich, serving a four-game PED suspension, and the trade that parked Chandler Jones on the opposing sideline.


Long was credited with one sack, but he should have gotten a half-sack on Jamie Collins's second-quarter sack. Howie Long's pass-rushing progeny also drew a holding call that pushed the Cardinals back from the Patriots 33 to the 43 on the fateful final drive.

Brady is the Patriot pound of flesh that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had to exact to appease the other owners and even the score with Belichick from Spygate.

Now, it looks like forcing TB12 to miss a quarter of the season for a venial and dubious offense might not be the Broncos-esque head shot staggering the Patriots that the NFL was banking on.

"At the end of the day, it is still the Patriots. The proof is in the pudding," said Cardinals linebacker Kevin Minter. "They have done it for years. Whoever they put in there, they find a way to get it done."

The quarterback has temporarily changed, but the standards for the Patriots should remain the same.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.