In the NFL, it’s common knowledge that you’re not entitled to anything. If you want to put your team in a good position to succeed in the playoffs, you need to show up when it matters. Unfortunately for the Patriots, they didn’t seem to get the memo last season, when they unexpectedly dropped their regular season finale to the Miami Dolphins at home. That loss prevented New England from securing a first round bye, and forced them to host Tennessee for a Wild Card game that ended up being Tom Brady’s last game as a Patriot.
A lot of things have changed since that matchup in December, from the pandemic, to the vast exodus of veterans from the Patriots roster during free agency. A win tomorrow won’t change the result from that Week 17 contest, but it would help set the tone for a wildly different season with Cam Newton under center.
With that being said, here’s what to look forward to during this Week 1 matchup.
1. What will the Patriots’ offense look like?
New England’s offensive struggles throughout the tumultuous 2019 season were well documented, as it quickly became evident that receivers other than Julian Edelman consistently struggled to get open against man coverage. Other than letting Phillip Dorsett walk & releasing Mohamed Sanu, Bill Belichick didn’t do much to overhaul the wide receiver corps, which means that the Patriots will be relying on Edelman, N’Keal Harry, and Jakobi Meyers to carry the load. Personally, I’m excited to see what newcomer Damiere Byrd can bring to the table, as his pure speed could help open things up down the field. Due to the strength of Miami’s secondary, I’m pessimistic about the Patriots’ chances of winning one-on-one matchups against Dolphin defenders. However, the addition of rookie tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene could help lighten the load for the team’s wide receivers, as they are definitely miles better than the team’s putrid tight end room from last season. Based on what we’ve heard from training camp, both Asiasi & Keene are dynamic, but the learning curve for rookie tight ends is typically steep, so it will definitely be a storyline to follow.
After a stellar rookie season, Sony Michel struggled mightily during the 2019 season, as he had a tough time getting started behind a patchwork offensive line. Luckily for Michel, starting center David Andrews is returning to action, after missing the entire 2019 season due to blood clots in his lungs. Andrews was a key anchor for the offensive line that dominated opponents during the Patriots’ last run to the Super Bowl. Michel had a leg injury that sidelined him for most of training camp, but when he returned, it was reported that he was quicker and more agile than the last time we saw him. As always, the Patriots will turn to the reliable duo of James White & Rex Burkhead to supplement Michel, with the two veterans also playing an important role in the passing game as well. The most intriguing member of the running back room has to be Damien Harris, who had a strong training camp until he suffered an untimely injury that will sideline him for at least 3 weeks.
I think it’s obvious that the biggest question mark surrounding the Patriots right now has to be the health & effectiveness of Cam Newton. Due to a lack of preseason games, we haven’t seen Newton in action for almost a year, which means that his running ability (which typically energizes an offense) is an unknown for now. Hence, we don’t know how comfortable Newton will be scrambling around the pocket and line of scrimmage tomorrow. Most importantly, it’s interesting to wonder if he’ll still initiate contact with defenders, which was a big part of his game back in Carolina. That being said, the mystery around Newton’s game could actually be a boon for Belichick and Josh McDaniels, as Miami’s head coach Brian Flores won’t know exactly what he’s dealing with. Most analysts have said that they expect McDaniels’ plan for Newton to be similar to Norv Turner’s short passing game from Newton’s stellar but injury plagued 2018 season, which actually seems to suit how the Patriots’ receivers play, as they’re definitely more effective across the middle of the field.
All in all, I’m excited to see how the post-Brady Patriots’ offense looks with a more mobile quarterback in Cam Newton, whose strengths may help cover the warts at wide receiver and other skill positions.
2. Can the defense deliver?
One of the biggest storylines of the offseason was the news that several Patriots veterans, including key leaders Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung had decided to opt out of the 2020 season due to concerns surrounding COVID-19. The absence of these two important defensive contributors will undoubtedly cast a spotlight on younger players on the defense, and test Bill Belichick’s confidence in them.
It may be hard to take the Dolphins’ offense seriously with 37 year old journeyman QB Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, but as the Patriots learned last year, he can hurt you when it matters most. Fitzpatrick’s top two weapons in Devante Parker & Mike Gesicki were key contributors during that December loss, and will likely be an important part of Miami’s game plan tomorrow. Uncharacteristically, Stephon Gilmore struggled mightily covering Parker, so I have to imagine that the reigning Defensive Player of the Year is salivating at the opportunity to exact revenge by locking up Miami’s top receiver. Due to the loss of Patrick Chung, it’ll be interesting to see how the Patriots decide to match up against Gesicki, but I wouldn’t be surprised if their top pick Kyle Dugger is given the assignment due to the success he had during training camp. Having Devin McCourty in the back end will be as important as ever, due to his effectiveness as both a player and a leader. New England will also have to deal with Preston Williams & Jakeem Grant, but I’m confident that the rest of the secondary will be able to limit their effectiveness.
However, the team’s defensive line and linebacker corps are much more of an enigma. The defensive line struggled to stop the run throughout last season, with the Wild Card game being a clear example, as Derrick Henry accumulated 182 rushing yards for the Titans. Other than adding veteran DT Beau Allen, the Patriots mostly stayed pat at the position, which means that Lawrence Guy and a slew of younger players will be tasked with playing much better against the run this season. Tomorrow’s game will be a tall task, as Miami has one of the fastest running backs in the league in Matt Breida, and a bruising rusher in Jordan Howard.
Dont’a Hightower’s decision to opt out dealt a devastating blow to the team’s linebacker corps, as he was a steadying force in the middle of the field. Luckily, the Patriots went into April’s draft with the goal of improving at linebacker, due to the departures of Jamie Collins, Elandon Roberts, & Kyle Van Noy (the latter two players signed with Miami). This led to the team drafting Alabama LB Anfernee Jennings & Michigan LB Josh Uche, who should help add versatility to the position behind three-year veteran Ja’Whaun Bentley. New England will also rely on Chase Winovich and John Simon to set the edge, and get after Fitzpatrick.
The Patriots had one of the NFL’s best defenses last year, so it will be intriguing to see how the retooled lineup looks tomorrow against a Dolphins offense that gave them fits last season.
- Yodny Cajuste (knee) – Out
- Gunner Olszewski (foot) – Out
- Dalton Keene (neck) – Questionable
- Cassh Maluia (knee) – Questionable
- N’Keal Harry (shoulder) – Questionable
- Chase Winovich (shoulder) – Questionable
- Clayton Fejedelem (pectoral) – Doubtful
1. New uniforms!
Tomorrow’s game will mark the debut of the Patriots’ new uniforms, which are primarily based on the team’s popular Color Rush uniforms which were worn from 2016 to 2019. Interestingly, this will be the first time the team wears the combination in a non-prime time game.
2. Fans in the stands?
Due to COVID-19, the Patriots will not have fans in Gillette Stadium throughout September. New England has been provided with a recorded track of artificial crowd noise which will be filtered throughout the stadium.
Prediction: Patriots 23, Dolphins 14
Here are my picks for the rest of the NFL’s Week 1 slate (apart from Thursday’s opening game).
Jets at Bills: Bills
Packers at Vikings: Vikings
Eagles at Washington: Eagles
Browns at Ravens: Ravens
Colts at Jaguars: Colts
Raiders at Panthers: Raiders
Bears at Lions: Bears
Seahawks at Falcons: Seahawks
Chargers at Bengals: Chargers
Cardinals at 49ers: 49ers
Buccaneers at Saints: Saints
Cowboys at Rams: Cowboys
Steelers at Giants: Steelers
Titans at Broncos: Titans