Are the Cardinals the toughest opening game opponent during the Belichick era?

Willie McGinest sacks Peyton Manning in the 2004 opener to set up another Colts loss in Foxborough (photo source:
Mike Reiss of ESPN posed an interesting question recently in his title that forecasted the Patriots game-by-game results this coming season. I thought it would be interesting to elaborate on that thought and go over the team's toughest opening game opponents during Bill Belichick's era to decide whether this indeed will be the team's toughest test on opening night in the past 17 years.

Despite the league's bias against the Patriots in so many other ways, when it comes to scheduling the opening game, the NFL has been kind to the team during this era.  First of all, the team hosted its opponent for 12 of those 17 games. Over the years, it's been extremely difficult for an opponent to eke out a win in Foxborough in any game, period so to get the first game at home gave the Patriots a nice jump out of the gate.  The team also had a 6-year stretch of first-games in Foxborough (2008-2013) and won all of them. Overall, the team has been excellent in any venue in its first game. Since 2004, the team is 11-1 in its season debut.

This season we're not so lucky to see a cream puff like Tennessee come into our building. Many view the Arizona Cardinals as the probable Super Bowl contender from the NFC.  But is this the toughest-first game The Belichickians have faced?  Let's take a look at the team's top five ranked opponents during this time period.

5. 2003, Bills, away.  On paper even two weeks before this game kicked off, this matchup certainly wasn't considered to be an AFC-Championship preview. The Bills were coming off a typical 8-8 season, good enough for 4th place in the AFC East, including 2 blowout losses to the Patriots. However, just 5 days before the regular season, Belichick cut the popular captain and starting safety, Lawyer Milloy. The media buzz and fan frenzy were unbearable and the Patriots were flat from start to finish and they got smoked in Orchard Park, 31-0.

4. 2015, Steelers, home.  The crowd and the team were in a celebratory mood as the team unveiled its 4th championship banner prior to kickoff. Many considered this to be an AFC Championship preview in the preseason, but injuries to both teams prevented this from ever happening as both teams succumbed to Denver in subsequent playoff rounds. The Patriots jumped to an early lead and kept the Steelers at arm's length until a late TD made the final score close at 28-21, although the game really wasn't that close. Most notably, after the game, Steelers coached Mike Tomlin made the sour-grapes quote of the season when he implied that the the Patriots cloak and dagger staff somehow hijacked the Steelers' coaches headset system.

3. 2004, Colts, home. Again, the Patriots held a pregame celebration of its previous season's Super Bowl Victory right before they played the Colts in a rematch of the previous season's AFC Championship. All offseason we heard whining from the Indianapolis camp about how foul Foxborough weather and Patriot defenders' clutching and grabbing stole their trophy from them.  After they bitched to the NFL and got the rules changed, the Colts were determined to prove doubters that they could beat the Pats in Foxborough in order to secure home field advantage so that they could host the P-Men in their home dome in January.  Initially, the Colts actually held the advantage on both sides of the ball with a 17-13 halftime lead, but a Peyton Manning INT on the first drive to Tedy Bruschi at the 1-yard line was a downer to an otherwise near-perfect-Colt half. Yet another clutch play by Colt-killer Willie McGinest, proved to be the difference as he sacked Manning for a 13 yard loss, thereby setting up "idiot kicker" Mike Vanderjagt for a game-tying-48-yard attempt. Wide right. Colts lose. And The Colts were forced to come back to Foxborough for a serious whooping in the snow (again) in the playoffs.

2. 2002, Steelers, home.  Remember that at that time, the Patriots were not yet a dynasty but rather just a cindarella champion.  Many considered the win at Pittburgh the previous January to be a fluke. Another banner day unfolded in New England as the Patriots unveiled their first Super Bowl placard for the delighted New England faithful.  Only years later did we learn from sore loser Hines Ward that the Patriots "definitely" stole signals from them, which was the sole reason for their victory in the previous year's AFC Championship upset for the Patriots (yet another sore loser Steeler).  In this game, the Steelers kept the game close in the first half trailing only 10-7. Once again, reality-failure Kordell Stewart stunk in the spotlight as he threw first-half INT's to Terrell Buckley and Mike Vrabel. The second half was a runaway as the Patriots rolled the Steelers 30-14.

1. 2016, Cardinals, away.  Never in the Belichick era has the team had an opening test like we will witness on Sunday. Not only are the Cardinals loaded and well coached, but they are motivated to prove to the country that they are the team to beat this year after losing in Carolina the past two seasons, including in the NFC Championship last year.  Since the Patriots are forced to engage the Cardinals with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback, this makes the task even more daunting.  Looking at the entire schedule for the season, this is clearly their toughest test.

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