GLENDALE, Ariz. – Jimmy Garoppolo took a final knee, the first victory formation of his NFL career, and upon rising was surrounded by teammates patting him on the helmet and grabbing him by the shoulders.

The scoreboard read New England 23, Arizona 21, but it was more than that. The Patriots arrived minus at least five starters due to injury or suspension, none bigger than the guy Garoppolo was replacing – Tom Brady. They were 10-point underdogs in some places, the biggest dogs since before they won their first Super Bowl a decade and a half ago.


Now they’d won again, won without Brady or Rob Gronkowski, won against a great Arizona defense, won with this third-year backup out of Eastern Illinois under center. New England is the NFL’s version of death and taxes – of course it would find a way to overcome the losses, of course it would find a way to win a game few thought it could, of course it would throw out a first-time starter, a guy with 20 career, mop-up duty attempts under his belt and watch him throw for 264 yards and a touchdown and lead a come-from-behind victory.

Of course. And of course the Patriots would spend the postgame following the plan as closely as the one they used to beat Arizona – in this case downplaying and aw-shucking it all – telling everyone that this was just one victory and Garoppolo did well but it wasn’t that big of a deal.

“It was not perfect, but he made a lot of good plays,” Bill Belichick noted.

Except, yeah, it was perfect enough and plenty of a big deal. Garoppolo would leave University of Phoenix Stadium carrying the official game ball, plus a game-worn one as a personal souvenir, in search of his father and family. Not to mention a huge smile and a sense of relief. This was a huge night for him and a huge night for New England, which takes its greatest pride in victories of this sort.

Garoppolo acknowledged being nervous pregame and taking a hit of smelling salts before kickoff because, “it just gets you going.” By the first time he got knocked around by an Arizona defender, though, he said the stage suddenly felt familiar. No more national television, no more loud, sold-out stadium, no more Patrick Patterson and Tyrann Mathieu over there looking to pick you off.

“A hundred yards,” Garoppolo said. “Then it’s just football. ” [/restrict]