FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The painful memory of the 47-7 rout by the New England Patriots still burns inside Larry Fitzgerald.
So what if the Arizona Cardinals made it to the Super Bowl six weeks later? The thought of that embarrassment four years ago drives him going into Sunday’s first meeting between the teams since.
“There’s not a lot of guys on this team from the 2008 year, but we remember that butt kicking we took up there,” Fitzgerald said. “That didn’t sit well with us then and four years later it still stings. …That was a tough game, the worst game that I ever played in in my professional career.”
The Patriots figure to put up another victory — they’re two-touchdown favorites — but coach Bill Belichick made the game sound like a toss-up.
He reminded his players of more recent developments, the Cardinals eight wins in their last 10 games. He’s drilling that into them as motivation against a team that has lost its last five matchups with New England.
“They’ve been in a lot of real tight, competitive games that come down to the wire that they find a way to win,” he said.
The Cardinals did that last Sunday when they went ahead with 4:59 left then stopped a Seattle drive in the final seconds to beat the Seahawks 20-16. The Patriots had a much easier time in their opener with a 34-13 victory at Tennessee in which they shut down the Titans’ offensive star, running back Chris Johnson.
Now the Patriots must focus on Fitzgerald, one of the NFL’s best receivers.
Maybe the best?
“He does everything well,” Belichick said. “He’s a great, great receiver, will go down as one of the all-time greats and might end up being the best one ever.”
“That’s what he said?” Fitzgerald asked. “It’s an honor that he even knows my name.”
Fitzgerald is a threat no matter who’s throwing the ball. Kevin Kolb is the likely starter for John Skelton, who sprained his right ankle last week.
The Patriots defense, fortified with first-round draft picks Chandler Jones at end and Dont’a Hightower at linebacker, was outstanding against the run and pass at Tennessee. The secondary got better with the addition of starting safety Steve Gregory and deeper with second-round draft choice Tavon Wilson, who intercepted a pass in his debut.
And, of course, they have a defensive mastermind in Belichick.
“He’s just really detail oriented,” Kolb said. “I think he reads into everything. He’s like a CIA operative. You can’t give him anything because he’s looking at it. He has had success with it, so he’s going to continue to do it.”
Arizona’s defense faces a tougher task — controlling Tom Brady and a revived running game that makes one of the NFL’s best offenses even better. Second-year back Stevan Ridley rushed for a career-high 125 yards and Brady threw for two touchdowns in the opener.
Even tougher, the Cardinals have little on-field knowledge of the Patriots, having last played them in 2008.
“It’s tough, especially early in the season, because you don’t get a lot of games to break them down,” Arizona defensive end Calais Campbell said, “but we know they’re a great team. There as good as anybody, if not the best team, year in and year out. … Tom Brady is the best at taking advantage of what you give him.”
But the Cardinals had the second best defense in the red zone last season. And last Sunday they forced Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson into three incompletions with the ball at the Arizona 4-yard line on the last three plays.
Safety Adrian Wilson and cornerback Patrick Peterson each intercepted a pass against the Seahawks.
The defensive backs, Patriots wide receiver Brandon Lloyd said, are “just the classic tough guys of the NFL. Adrian’s been around for a long time. He’s savvy. (Kerry) Rhodes is the same way and that pass rush definitely puts a lot of pressure on the offense.”
You want tough? The Cardinals must deal with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Each had six catches and a touchdown against Tennessee.
“They’re a difficult team to prepare for just from the number of different packages they run offensively and the personnel groupings they use,” Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
The Cardinals had eight straight losing seasons before Whisenhunt took over in 2007 and led them to an 8-8 record. They’ve had just one losing season in his five at the helm.
“Now that the philosophy is starting to be well executed among the players, they’re a good team,” Lloyd said. “Individually, those players get a lot of respect.”
In that thumping four years ago, he scored on a 78-yard pass play after the Patriots had built a 47-0 lead.
“I’ll never forget walking off that field and looking at that scoreboard, just the feeling of embarrassment, disappointment,” he said. “We definitely want to go out there and have a much better performance.”