I know what you’re thinking. “The Patriots season is over, the path to the playoffs has crashed and burned, why bother writing these previews?” The answer is simple. There is still much to play for, even if the playoffs are all but mathematically impossible with the 24-3 loss last Thursday night in Los Angeles against the Rams and the Baltimore Ravens edging past the Cleveland Browns on Monday night after Lamar Jackson took a Paul Pierce worthy mid-game deuce. Though the Patriots are far out of the post-season race for the first time in 12 years, there is still intrigue with this team. How will receivers Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry continue to develop? Are there any bright spots with the young pieces on defense? Edge rushers Josh Uche (who was the subject of a recently uploaded article) and Chase Winovich are proving to be a point of interest for the Pats in the final weeks of this season. There is still a handful of themes to look out for and with three divisional games in a row to finish the year, wouldn’t it be fun to play spoiler to our division rivals and maybe beat up on the Jets one last time? If I haven’t convinced you to continue watching the Patriots yet, I’m not sure anything will. But with the surrounding issues in the world today, where we almost didn’t have football this season, I’ll enjoy watching my team as long as I can seeing as how it can be taken away from us as soon as it was given to us.
This week the Patriots take on the 8-5 Miami Dolphins, who are coming off of a tight loss against the top team in the AFC, the Kansas City Chiefs. The Patriots didn’t get to meet rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in the Week 1 meeting, but it looks like they will this time around as the rookie signal-caller is coming off of what might be the best game of his young career passing for 316 yards and two scores. Meanwhile, the Patriots are coming off of their second blowout loss of the season looking to end the season with a little bit of optimism heading into 2021 with the playoffs more than likely out of reach. With all of that being said, set it up, Bailey. Let’s get this one underway.
Three Keys To The Game
Key #1: Contain Tua
Although he’s a rookie, Tagovailoa is a dynamic quarterback who can make plays both through the air and on the ground. He is also left-handed which adds a different dynamic to his game. Tagovailoa gets his best success when he rolls out of the pocket to his left, unlike most quarterbacks where their dominant hand is right. Too many times against the Chiefs he was allowed to scramble to his left and make a play out of the pocket. You have to imagine that a Bill Belichick-led defense would contain that left side, and maybe even pressure him to roll to his right side which might force some awkward throws. This one is pretty simple and I’m confident guys like Uche, Winovich and John Simon are more than capable of setting the edge. While defensive tackles Adam Butler and Lawrence Guy bring the pressure up the middle.
Key #2: Avoid The Air Attack
Week in, week out, I write about how poor quarterback Cam Newton is throwing the ball and how the Patriots should avoid giving him the opportunity to turn the ball over. Hell, I even wrote a piece last weekend calling for his benching following the mess in Los Angeles last week. But the problem here goes beyond Newton. The Dolphins secondary is very good. With corners Xavien Howard and former Dallas Cowboy Byron Jones leading the charge, they are going to make quick work of Damiere Byrd, Meyers, and Harry, who is coming off of one of his best showings in a long time. The run game is going to be the only source of points for this Patriots offense and they’re going to have to get creative. Instead of running it up the middle four times in a row as they did against the Rams during a goal-line situation just ahead of halftime that could’ve turned the game around. This Dolphins defense is the second-ranked scoring defense in the NFL. The Patriots’ offense is bottom five. If you’re a betting man, take the under on this game. Points will be at a premium for both sides of this match-up.
Key #3: Feed Damien Harris
Running back Damien Harris has become every bit of the rusher that we all had hoped former first-round pick Sony Michel would have been. Harris has rushed for 691 yards and three scores averaging five yards a carry! It’s safe to say that Harris is just the latest example of the value of selecting running backs after the first round after being picked in the third round of the 2019 draft. Neither Michel nor James White can hit the hole and deliver the power that Harris does. Though I’d love to see White involved in screen passes and change of pace play calls, the bulk of the carries should go to Harris. As a side note, stop forcing the run with Newton. Everybody sees it coming from a mile away, Josh McDaniels.
X-Factor: Linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley
I could pull the usual and talk again about how the offensive playcalling has been costing us wins and scoring opportunities week in and week out. But that shtick only lasts so long, we know McDaniels has been putrid and Newton isn’t doing him any favors. So let’s shift focus to the only thing that works on this team, and that’s the defense. Ja’Whaun Bentley has taken over the role that Kyle Van Noy left last season and has taken it in stride. Pairing up with safety Adrian Phillips who plays a little linebacker himself has been a match made in heaven for this defense. Especially when you consider the opt-outs and turnover this defense suffered before the season began. But this week Bentley is given the task to keep yet another mobile quarterback in Tagovailoa in the pocket and away from rolling out to his left. Probably even bringing pressure up the middle as a blitzer. Bentley will be instrumental in giving the offense as many opportunities as it needs to put points on the board. They were able to handle Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals at home just a few short weeks ago. They’ll need a repeat performance because I don’t think we’ll be seeing any significant improvement in the offense this game.
As a Patriots fan, it’s been historically difficult or even outright shameful to look at an AFC East team and be a fan of what they’re putting together. Though one year into the Brian Flores experiment, the Miami Dolphins have been hard for me to root against. Coach Flo’ has done a great job of building a strong culture in Miami, something they haven’t had in many years, and is years ahead of expectations when it comes to how long everybody thought this rebuild was going to be. Coach Flores might be the best coach to come out of the Bill Belichick coaching tree. Though that isn’t a hard thing to accomplish, the most successful before Flores was Bill O’Brien and the Houston Texans, and we all saw how that worked out earlier in the season. I have a feeling the Dolphins are going to be here to stay for a long time and will be perennial AFC East contenders so long as Tagovailoa stays healthy and the rebuild keeps humming along. With the Houston Texans trading away their first-round pick to the Dolphins last season, Miami has yet another chance to add a young elite rookie to this already youthful roster loaded with talent.
As far as this week goes, the Dolphins are lightyears ahead of the Patriots in roster building. The only advantage the Patriots truly have is their coaching, and with Flores being a Coach of the Year candidate, the gap isn’t really all that big. If it means anything, Belichick is 20-5 against rookie quarterbacks in his career and could pose a problem to Tagovailoa and the Dolphins offensively. But will their offense capitalize on the opportunities? History says no, but we’ll see. I can’t unbiasedly give the Patriots the win in Miami coming off of a brutal loss with little to play for. Especially when it’s a 50-50 split between fans on who should be starting at quarterback to finish the season between Newton and Jarrett Stidham. It should be competitive, as most divisional games are, but it’s hard to see an outcome where the Pats come out on top against a team far more talented than them in these circumstances.
Final Score: 21-13 Dolphins win (Patriots fall to 6-8)
Photo Source: Billie Weiss, Getty Images