TEMPE, Ariz. - Calling this a trap game is too easy.
Sun Devil Stadium
4:15 PM EDT
Channel 718, 930
|Latest Line:||Patriots by 8|
There. That should do it. Nobody will take anybody lightly.
Because when you talk about the Cardinals and their lousy history, how can't you look at them on the schedule and think "easy win". The Patriots came here in 1999, clobbered the Cardinals 27-3, and went into the bye week at 6-2. It would prove to be the last moment of glory for Pete Carroll, as his team went 2-6 the rest of the way and Carroll found his way to collegiate glory at USC. But the Patriots had a ridiculously easy time with the Cardinals, much like the previous meeting before (a 31-0 whitewash at Foxborough in 1996).
So, will 2004 be different? Have the Cardinals improved so much that Belichick should be genuinely concerned about it becoming a trap game? Is Belichick worried about the weather being ghastly hot, which explains why the team left town on Thursday versus the usual Saturday departure for away games? Will the pressure of extending this long winning streak become too much for the Patriots to handle? Will playing the world champs be the impetus for the Cardinals to play way over their heads and steal a major upset win?
Before we dissect the game, we need to dissect the weather, and address the concerns of those people who are afraid that it's going to be far into triple digits. It won't be, and the current forecast for Sunday may shock you.
Lots of coverage has been devoted to Hurricane Ivan, which has vented its wrath along the gulf coast and points north. But little publicity has been given to Hurricane Javier, which was centered south of Baja California, Mexico and began a NNE course towards southern Arizona. The current forecast for Sunday in the Phoenix area calls for thunderstorms and high temperatures in the high 80s. The anticipation of an incinerator feeling at Sun Devil Stadium may instead turn into an Adam Vinatieri special, a game plagued by weather phenomena which suits Vinatieri just fine and which residents of the Valley of the Sun rarely see.
So, if temperatures in the 100s (actually, the original forecasts said that Sunday would top out at 95 degrees) are out of the question, what about bringing the Patriots out two days early? Getting to an away venue early can never be a bad thing, other than the players being away from their familiar surroundings and suffering disruption in their weekly routines. This can still turn out well for the Patriots, as warm and stormy presents different weather issues which can be just as detrimental as extreme dry heat.
Enough of the weather. Do the Cardinals have a chance to beat the Patriots?
Of course they do. The Patriots had just enough to beat a team they usually handle well in their opener. Emmitt Smith, all of 35 yards old and the top rusher in league history, might look at the films of Edgerrin James gouging the Patriots up the middle and be licking his chops. Wideouts Larry Fitzgerald and Karl Williams (2003 rookie sensation Anquan Boldin is out with a knee operation) might be wary about the stricter enforcement of the five-yard contact rule, and challenge the Patriot cornerbacks. Dennis Green (.606 career win percentage) is the best coach the Cardinals have had since Don Coryell.
Odds are that the Patriots will not come out flat as a pancake, and they will win all the personnel matchups they should win. Smith is in there because Marcel Shipp, late of UMass, is lost for the season due to an ankle injury, and though he had a decent game against the Rams last week (16 carries, 87 yards), he is nowhere near the back he was in Dallas and doesn't have anything near the offensive line he had back then. Belichick hasn't seen much of McCown, but this isn't a case where he will break through and figure out a Belichick defense, though he will not necessarily be a pushover (his passer rating against St. Louis was 79.8).
The Patriots may win this game like they won the first, and that is by merely outscoring their offense. Combine lack of familiarity with a chance that the run defense may get gouged again, and Arizona could possibly score a few points on New England. But the Patriots should be more than equal to the task when they have the ball. Of particular interest is former Colt David Macklin at right cornerback, a familiar mark for Brady (among other things, Macklin was burned twice deep by David Patten in the 2001 contest where Patten ran, caught and threw for touchdowns in the same game). Nobody else on the Cardinal defense other than perhaps tackle machine Ronald McKinnon at middle linebacker inspires any fear in the minds of the Patriots.
And maybe that's not a good thing. Lack of familiarity has worked poorly for the Red Sox (0-6 against rookie pitchers in 2004). Belichick has complained about the lack of game film to study in preparation for the Cardinals. He has had to dig deep into the archives and pull out footage of Green's game plans while he was still coach of the Vikings. Green may have some tricks up his sleeve with a bunch of guys the Patriots know nothing about, but the Patriots insist that Green does the same things with Arizona like he did with Minnesota, and that they won't likely be surprised.
The one final intangible which could engender a colossal upset would be the halftime tribute to former Cardinal safety Pat Tillman, who forsook an NFL career to go and fight over in Afghanistan. Tillman was killed in action as a member of the Army Rangers back in April, the first NFL player to be killed in a war since Vietnam. Tillman's number 40 will be retired, and the area surrounding the stadium will be a plaza named in his honor. The ceremony could serve to fire up the Cardinals and cause them to play more inspired ball than the Patriots.
The only way the Patriots can match this is Tedy Bruschi, coming home to the area where he played his college ball (actually it was in Tucson with the U of A, whereas Sun Devil Stadium is home to Bruschi's sworn enemy, Arizona State). If Bruschi can fire up his defense to play well in his backyard, the Cardinals will be in for it all game long. If it means anything, punter Josh Miller also went to Arizona and played two years with Bruschi, so look for him to pin the Cardinals deep every time.
Face it, losing to Arizona would be the worst of all Cardinal sins for the Patriots. They are solid favorites to win, the weather may actually play into their favour, and they should win if they play a solid and completely efficient game against a far weaker team on paper as well as on the field. If the game does turn into a quagmire, this might be a nice chance for Corey Dillon to show off his game, something he might really look forward to doing in front of Emmitt The Great.
Bill Bidwill the Bob Kraft of Arizona? Here's hoping you all know sarcasm when you hear it.
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