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Jimmy Garoppolo proves Pats can thrive under his stewardship

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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The house was rocking. The Cardinals were coming. And the cold, cruel hand of fate appeared to be on the verge of a corrective smackdown that would put young Jimmy Garoppolo in his place.

The New England Patriots, without Tom Brady to save them, were surely going down to defeat in the desert -- or so it seemed to most of America.

Watching from the sidelines with his team trailing by a point and facing a third-and-15 from its own 20-yard line with nine minutes remaining, Pats safety Devin McCourty knew the untested dude with the ball in his hand faced a daunting situation. Yet something told McCourty -- even as 64,864 fans at University of Phoenix Stadium roared for the Arizona Cardinals to take control of a tense, regular-season-opening Sunday Night Football showdown -- that Garoppolo was going to stand and deliver.

And remarkably, the third-year quarterback from Eastern Illinois making his first NFL start shrugged off the stress and seized the moment.

No Brady? No Gronk?

No problem.

"It was so cool for Jimmy to come out and have that poise," McCourty said after the Patriots pulled out a 23-21 victory over the loaded Cardinals despite the absence of their two biggest stars. "When you've got a player who comes out and shows you nothing but good things in practice and training camp, you kind of expect these things ... But to actually see him do it was great. We knew we were short-handed and without a couple of guys we usually count on, and we needed everybody to step up."

What Garoppolo accomplished on Sunday night should have every Patriots fan -- hell, every Patriots player -- high-stepping to work this week. With Brady, their future first-ballot Hall of Famer, serving the first game of a four-game NFL suspension for the deflated-football scandal stemming from the 2014 AFC Championship Game, Garoppolo resoundingly proved the Pats are fully capable of thriving under his stewardship.

The fill-in quarterback's 24-of-33, 264-yard performance was surprisingly smooth and savvy -- and a whole lot of other shining adjectives.

"He's just gutsy, man," said veteran defensive end Chris Long, who had a sack of Carson Palmer in his first game with the Patriots following eight seasons with the Rams. "He stepped up and made some gutsy, gutsy plays."

None was gutsier than the one the young quarterback made on that third-and-15 with nine minutes remaining, shortly after the Cardinals had taken a 21-20 lead on Palmer's second touchdown pass to sublime receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

Garoppolo, who two plays earlier had been sacked by ex-Patriots linebacker Chandler Jones, once again faced pressure in the pocket and slipped to his left to buy time. And then, in the nick of time, Garoppolo zipped a glorious throw downfield to slot receiver Danny Amendola, who hauled it in for a 32-yard gain.

"Third-and-15, you've got to let your guys get down the field, and Danny found the opening in the zone," Garoppolo explained afterward. "It was a great job by him. He made it a pretty easy throw for me and he made a nice catch, too, so it was a good play all the way around."

Ten plays later, Stephen Gostkowski's 32-yard field goal gave the Pats their 23-21 lead with 3:44 remaining. Three minutes after that, following Chandler Catanzaro's 47-yard attempt that sailed wide left, Garoppolo took a knee to close out the victory and got a lot of love from his exuberant teammates.

Not surprisingly, by the time the Pats met with reporters, they had reverted to the Do Your Job blandness that coach Bill Belichick knows, loves and preaches. Yet deep inside, they understood that this one was special.

It had taken a full-team effort to overcome the Cardinals, who, like the Pats, were coming off a season in which they lost in their conference championship game. Yet while Arizona appeared to be fully primed for a fast start in 2016, the Patriots -- in addition to the obvious absence of Brady, their starting quarterback for the past decade-and-a-half -- were without star tight end Rob Gronkowski (who stayed home with a hamstring injury) and starting left tackle Nate Solder (ditto).

Naturally, Garoppolo led them on a pair of first-quarter scoring drives, throwing a 37-yard touchdown pass to receiver Chris Hogan on the Pats' opening possession and pushing their lead to 10-0 after Gostkowski's 47-yard field goal. Garoppolo did lose a fumble on a third-down sack with 10:26 left in the second quarter, his only real mistake of the day. That set up a Cardinals touchdown drive, but Garoppolo rebounded with a nine-play, 75-yard march to start the second half, with LeGarrette Blount's eight-yard scoring burst giving New England a 17-7 edge.

All in all, it was a pretty good debut for a guy who admitted he had pregame jitters, a persistent state of affairs he traced back to his Pop Warner days.

"I get nervous before every game," Garoppolo said. "I think that's a good thing, though. If you don't get nervous, it doesn't mean that much to you."

Granted, this game didn't mean nearly as much as the Patriots' last performance in this building -- the epic, ultra-stressful Super Bowl XLIX triumph over the Seattle Seahawks 19 months earlier. Yet the significance of Sunday night's effort shouldn't be understated.

We now know the Pats won't crumble while Brady serves out his suspension -- and we're starting to suspect that they've found a signal caller who can capably carry on his legacy.

While not as electrifying as Colin Kaepernick's coming out party for the 49ers in his first career start four seasons ago on a Thursday night in San Francisco (and yes, a lot has changed since then), Garoppolo showed enough poise and precision to give the Patriots ample hope for the future.

Give a ton of credit to Belichick, who helped prepare Garoppolo for this moment, and to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who crafted a shrewd and sensible game plan. We could spend several paragraphs hailing the play designs, and the rhythmic brilliance of McDaniels' balanced calls, but this was the most important part: He didn't ask the quarterback to do things he wasn't comfortable doing, and he put the young passer in position to do the things he does best.

Garoppolo, to his credit, showed pocket presence and a propensity for good decision making. He refrained from forcing the ball to any specific receiver, spreading his throws to tried-and-true targets like receiver Julian Edelman, who had seven catches for 66 yards, and newbies Malcolm Mitchell (a fourth-round draft pick in April), Martellus Bennett (a talented tight end acquired in a trade with the Chicago Bears) and Hogan (a restricted free-agent signee formerly with the Buffalo Bills).

So, who did Garoppolo resemble? Well, it might sound like sacrilege, but ... Brady, at least the much younger version.

When that Brady replaced the injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001 and became the Pats' starter, ultimately leading New England to the first of its four Super Bowl triumphs during his reign, he was far more of a game manager -- and deliberate check-down artist -- than many fans may remember. Some surely recall that, on the fateful drive which gave the Pats their Super Bowl XXXVI upset over the Rams, Brady dinked and dunked his way down the field and into range for Adam Vinatieri's game-winning field goal. It wasn't until six seasons later that Brady became a record-setting, gaudy-numbers-generating fantasy darling.

I'm not saying Garoppolo is headed down that same path, or anywhere close to it -- Brady will go down as one of the all-time greats, and he may well contend for another title this January and February. However, after what we witnessed Sunday night, I'm not ruling out the possibility that Brady's backup has star quality.

And I suspect I'm not alone. Consider that when Garoppolo was mounting what proved to be the game-winning drive Sunday night, McCourty said he and his fellow Pats defenders never once focused on the quarterback who wasn't on the field.

"You know what's funny? We didn't even think about it," McCourty said. "Since I've been here, I've had nothing but belief in our offense when it comes to those types of situations, so we weren't about to get stressed out. Why would we?"

If Garoppolo's poise carries over to the Pats' next three games -- and, perhaps, into the post-Brady future -- there are 31 other teams who might end up feeling the stress.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

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