Football is back.
What a way to start the season as fans were treated to a Broncos-Panthers Super Bowl rematch on Thursday night and get a matchup of the AFC and NFC runners-up to close out Sunday.
The New England Patriots start the season on the road in what should be a raucous environment in University of Phoenix stadium. Both teams will enter the 2016 season with a sour taste in their mouthes having narrowly missed out on competing in the Super Bowl. This season, both are heavily favored to make a deep run and will look to start the season off strong.
The Patriots offense was held in check by the staunch Denver defense for most of their 20-18 loss on that cold night in late January. Statistically, New England had one of pro-football’s most efficient teams in 2015-2016, ranked 5th in overall Defense-Adjusted Value over Replacement (DVOA), a Football Outsiders stat that measures the effectiveness of a team compared with the the rest of the league when it comes to how and when yards and points are gained and conceded.
A big factor in New England’s impressive offensive rating was their aversion to committing costly mistakes. The team turned the ball over a league-low 14 times, resulting in an impressive +7 turnover margin.
Last season's offense was run by Touchdown Tom Brady, the ageless wonder and New England demi-god. Brady lead the NFL in touchdowns with 36, and was the biggest factor in New England’s impressive turnover margin, throwing an interception on only 1.1 percent of passes, best in the league.
Brady, however is serving out a league-mandated suspension for the first four weeks of this season (something about deflated balls... no that can’t be right), and will be replaced by Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo, who is in his 3rd year as a pro, has thrown 31 passes in his career but has been learning under the tutelage of No 12, which should help.
Also of note, the Pats parted ways with Chandler Jones, their most prolific pass rusher and every down lineman, and will be replacing him with a bevy of options including returning starters Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich (who is also suspended for the first four games after testing positive for a banned substance) as well as free agent and former first round pick Chris Long and 4th round pick Trey Flowers. It will be interesting to see how New England makes up for the loss of Jones, or, in typical Bill Belichick fashion, whether his loss affects the team at all.
Meanwhile, the Arizona Cardinals have their own demons to exorcise after getting thrashed 49-15 by the Carolina Panthers in last year's NFC South championship. The team that was 3rd in total DVOA (4th in offense, 3rd in defense) returns with many starters including veteran quarterback Carson Palmer.
At the ripe age of 36, Palmer had his best season ever as a pro, throwing 35 touchdowns and leading the NFL in both yard per attempt and yards per completion. Palmer’s advanced metrics were phenomenal as well, leading the NFL in QBR and adjusted net yards per attempt, a stat which factors in five key passing statistics (passing yards, touchdowns, interceptions, times sacked and yards lost to sacks) to create a value of net yardage created per attempt.
A few big things changed for Arizona in the offseason, but it appears the team is entering 2016 in better shape than it did in 2015. The team retained important pieces of its strong defensive line, including Calais Campbell and Markus Golden, while adding Chandler Jones (go figure) and rookie Robert Nkemdiche. The 2016 defensive line should be as effective or more than its 2015 iteration.
The offensive line bolsters a new set of faces on the right side after being one of the NFL’s best units in 2015. Evan Mathis came over from Denver in free agency, and Mathis is one of the NFL’s top guards. Despite winning a Super Bowl, Mathis is still motivated as ever with his new team.
"You don't ever want anybody to start feeling comfortable, start feeling bigger than they are just because a bunch of people are saying we're picked to win the Super Bowl or whatever," Mathis told Arizona Sports 98.7 FM’s Off the Edge with B-Train. "We're 0-0 right now. We haven't done anything. This team has done nothing. We have to go out and prove ourselves every single week, every single day. So the pressure's there."
Next to Mathis at tackle will be first time starter DJ Humphries, who will be tested out of the block against a talented and creative New England front seven.
As with all NFL Week 1 matchups, this game could go either way. Watch how the right side of Arizona’s line holds up against New England to start the game and how the in-game adjustments go from there. Garoppolo’s play, especially his ability to limit mistakes, will be essential to a Patriots victory.
Expect a close and exciting game played at a high level, but betting on a backup QB on the road is risky business. Look for the Cardinals to take the victory on Sunday Night Football.