Patriots escape with unexpected win over Cardinals

You don’t want to read this, and I don’t want to write it, but the truth is here, inescapable: We will never be free of the New England Patriots.

Team They-Hate-Us-Cause-They-Ain’t-Us took on the heavily favored Arizona Cardinals down two marquee stars, and the result was an unexpected 23-21 New England victory. Of course it was.

The Cardinals, we know: borderline MVP quarterback, franchise running back, three-headed receiving attack, sling-it-long head coach. The Patriots, we didn’t: How would the team fare without its two most notable players?

You take Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski off the field, and you’re looking at a team working at maybe 66 percent of its capabilities. As it turned out, 66 percent of the Patriots is still enough to take out a team that’s a trendy Super Bowl contender.

Gronk sat because of a persistent hamstring injury, and Brady tapped out on his long-running deflate-gate showdown with the NFL, accepting a four-game suspension that’s exalted him to martyr status in Boston. But as long as the Patriots have Bill Belichick in charge, they’re going to be a military-grade operation, riding Jimmy Garoppolo in his first NFL start, executing to the extent that someone named Chris Hogan can get open and score with ease against one of the NFL’s finer secondaries.

Arizona found its footing late in the game, buoyed by a couple of veterans: Larry Fitzgerald, who caught his 100th touchdown reception, and Chandler Jones, who wreaked havoc against the offense of his former team. Arizona didn’t even take the lead until there were less than 10 minutes left in the game, and didn’t hold that lead for very long before New England weathered multiple third-and-long situations to score a go-ahead field goal.

With less than four minutes remaining, the Cardinals took over, down one with 92 yards to travel. Palmer relied on Fitzgerald over and over again, and the veteran duo showed why the Cardinals have the potential to be a threat right on through February. But a makeable game-winning field goal from Chandler Catanzaro drifted wide after a bungled snap, and the Patriots escaped.

The Cardinals aren’t a bad team, and indeed will be knocking at the ceiling of the NFC for the rest of the season. But no matter what Arizona, or any other team, puts together over the course of the next four months, they’ll know that the Patriots will be waiting. They’ll always be waiting.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Email him here, and find him on Twitter (@jaybusbee) and Facebook.