The New England Patriots won the AFC East in 2020 for the 16th time since the 2002 divisional realignment and finished first for the 11th consecutive season. However, 2020 is a new season and this is a brand new Patriots team.
In addition, the Buffalo Bills look like a legitimate contender, the Dolphins pillaged seemingly every Patriots free agent player and coach available the past two seasons to go along with former New England defensive coordinator Brian Flores’ young and athletic skill players from the draft, and the Jets…well, the Jets are still the Jets.
Last year, New England finished 12-4 and Miami finished 5-11. However, the final regular season game saw the Dolphins pull out all the stocks and ride a red-hot Ryan Fitzpatrick (320 yards passing) and Devante Parker (137 yards receiving) to a fantastic finish pulling out a 27-24 victory inside the final minute at Gillette Stadium (all statistics per Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted). The loss knocked the Patriots out of a bye week and into the Wild Card weekend where the offense fizzled in a 20-13 loss to Tennessee.
Both teams have had significant turnover on both sides of the ball since last December. With training camps limited and all the preseason games cancelled, it will be a strange start to the season no matter what. Add in playing in empty or almost-empty stadiums, and the 2020 season is completely unpredictable across the league (OK, except maybe for the Jets still being the Jets).
This week’s game will be broadcast at 1:00 p.m Eastern time by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in the Boston market and on WPRI-12 in the Providence market. CBS brings out the top team to Foxborough with Jim Nantz handling the play-by-play duties along with the best announcer in the NFL, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will somehow try to work from the sidelines while maintaining social distancing protocol.
Sunday’s game will be broadcast on the radio locally on 98.5 The Sports Hub. The flagship station for the Patriots Radio Network, it will also be found on the network’s 38 stations that carry each and every Patriots game live across New England and even into the Rochester region in upstate New York. Play-by-play broadcaster Bob Socci is back to call the action along with the ever-entertaining and always excited former Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on offense and defense that will determine if the Patriots are able to emerge victorious on Sunday afternoon.
Patriots Offensive Strategy and Key Matchups:
Patriots’ RB Sony Michel vs Dolphins’ LBs Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy:
Despite the training camp splash made by second-year running back Damien Harris, a pinkie finger that required surgery landed him on injured reserve for the first three regular season games. Starter Sony Michel, after offseason foot surgery, was initially on the physically unable to perform list to start camp but has come on strong since. With a passing offense with a new quarterback and one proven veteran wide receiver (Julian Edelman), the pressure will be on Michel to carry the offense.
Michel has played well against Miami in the past. As a rookie, he rushed for 112 yards in his fourth career NFL game against the Dolphins. He has three rushing touchdowns in four games and had 18 or more carries in all four match-ups.
Miami struggled against the run last season (27th in the NFL at 135.4 yards allowed per game), although that may have been in part due to being so far behind in so many early season games. The run defense was better in the second half of the season (particularly in December) and have imported help in that particular area.
Patriots fans are intimately familiar with Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts. Both linebackers are strong at the point of attack and are aggressive, downhill tacklers who enthusiastically attack rushers. Although Van Noy played as an edge rusher in New England, with Emmanuel Ogbah and Shaq Lawson brought in to rush the passer, Van Noy should be a traditional 3-4 outside linebacker and have more impact against the run.
The Dolphins’ defense struggled at times trying to stop the run last year but have imported a number of new players. If the Patriots can refrain from falling into an early hole like they did last year in the regular season finale, they should be able to move the ball consistently on offense via the running game and keep the Dolphins’ potentially high-powered passing offense on the sidelines.
Patriots’ WR N’Keal Harry vs Dolphins’ CB Byron Jones:
Byron Jones was the crown jewel cornerback in NFL free agency this offseason and the Dolphins paid a premium to pry him out of Dallas. Although he may not always be in the conversation with Stephon Gilmore, Tre’Davious White, Jalen Ramsey and Richard Sherman as the best of the best, he is ALMOST deserving of running with that elite cornerback group.
The problem for Jones is that he has been in a system in Dallas that plays 75-80% zone defense. He is coming to a defense in Miami that prefers to play press-man coverage. This is a big scheme change for Jones. This scheme caused Minkah Fitzpatrick to demand a trade (landing in zone-heavy Pittsburgh, a perfect fit for his skills) and saw Xavien Howard struggle in his first season with head coach Brian Flores.
New England’s 2019 first round draft pick wide receiver N’Keal Harry actually caught his first NFL touchdown with Jones literally draped on him in press-man coverage last November. Harry used his big body to shield Jones from the ball and made the back-shoulder catch and hung on as Jones shoved him from behind trying to jar the ball loose. Jones had solid coverage, but Harry flashed the skills that play that made him a first round draft pick.
Of course, that was Harry’s only catch that game. He is loaded with potential and big-play ability but had been unable to put it all together last season. In 2020, with Cam Newton (who has loved playing with big outside receivers who can win 50-50 battles) Harry appears to have a quarterback better to take advantage of his particular skill set.
New England struggled in the passing game mightily at the end of last season. They may well struggle on Sunday with a new quarterback and against an improved pass rush and above-average secondary. The Patriots need to find ways to get the ball in rookie N’Keal Harry’s hands and let his athleticism, size and speed gain easy yards and put points on the board.
Patriots’ C David Andrews vs Dolphins’ DTs Christian Wilkins and Davon Godchaux:
Throw rookie Raekwon Davis into this mix and week one is not going to be a “easing slowly back into action” type of game for New England center David Andrews after missing all of 2019. The Dolphins liked challenging the Patriots to run outside in their match-up last year by clogging the middle with three big bodies. Rookie Davis and returning run-stoppers Wilkins and Godchaux create a tough match-up in the middle of the line. Andrews, depending on the play call and alignment, could be across from any of these three bruisers.
Godchaux had 33 solo tackles and 75 total last year. Wilkins, as a rookie, added 30 solo tackles and 56 overall. New England rushed for 135 yards against Miami in the season finale last year, but many of those rushes were on the edge. Getting tough yards up the middle was not happening that day. Things may be different with Andrews replacing Ted Karras (who is now a captain and starting center for Miami) but he has three very strong and athletic defensive tackles lining up across from him.
New England has a chance to give Cam Newton his best offensive line in front of him since…Auburn? Andrews is a glue guy, while Karras did well stepping in, Andrews is a technician and has improved his strength each year. Newton took a beating during his time in Carolina and was never truly protected at any point of his tenure. That should be different with Andrews anchoring a strong unit.
The Patriots’ offensive line has a tough match-up inside against Christian Wilkins and the other Miami stand-outs. While New England may feel they need to pass the ball to win, the running game may prove more important. Gaining tough yards inside is a must to extend drives and control the ball.
The game plan on offense is to run the ball and let Cam Newton get comfortable behind a solid offensive line. Running through the outside lanes and keeping the pass rush off Newton should allow the New England offense to put together some long drives. If Newton can extend a few plays and find N’Keal Harry for a few big plays, it should allow the Patriots to control time of possession and get Miami out of their game plan.
NEW ENGLAND EXPECTED POINTS SCORED: 24
Patriots Defensive Strategy and Key Matchups:
Dolphins’ OTs Austin Jackson and Jesse Davis vs Patriots’ DEs John Simon and Chase Winovich:
The Miami offensive line was terrible last season and an overhaul was needed. Rookie first round draft pick Austin Jackson beat out Julien Davenport at left tackle and is one of two rookies starting on the line. Solomon Kindley takes over at right guard with former New York Giants first round draft pick Ereck Flowers at left guard, and lone holdover Jesse Davis starting at right tackle after starting everywhere except center over the past four seasons.
Former Patriots center Ted Karras takes over inside.of the revamped offensive line. However, the pressure is on the rookie Jackson and Davis to shore up the most important positions on the line for Miami. Davis beat out rookie second-round pick Robert Hunt (who also was able to beat out by Kindley at right guard). Rookie left tackle Jackson has all the tools to be a franchise left tackle, but like Flowers lining up next to him at guard, draft selection means little once the games start.
For Miami, they are probably happy not to be facing elite pass rushers in week one. The Patriots have not had an elite edge rusher since Chandler Jones was sent to Arizona for a second round draft pick and replacement Trey Flowers cashed in during free agency after 2018. In 2020, the Patriots are leaning on veteran John Simon, Deatrich Wise Jr., and Chase Winovich.
Simon has seemingly found a home in New England after bouncing around with Houston, Baltimore and Indianapolis. A “tweener”, he is strong enough to set the edge and quick enough to generate pressure for the Patriots’ defense and a classic “Rob Ninkovich” type fit. Wise had high expectations but struggles with consistency. Derek Rivers finally may be healthy and ready to contribute after years of injury issues.
Improving against the run and setting the edge were on the to-do list for 2019 fourth round draft pick Chase Winovich. With his flowing blond locks and his full-speed 100% hustle play, Winovich quickly became a fan favorite. A natural pass rusher with a non-stop motor, his potential makes him likely to play more in 2020.
Whoever is on the field at defensive end needs to take advantage of Jackson and Davis and generate pressure. Sacks are nice, drawing holding penalties are as well, but just getting pressure to force off-target throws and incompletions and hopefully turnovers is vital. In December against Miami last year, the Patriots got little pressure (two sacks), no turnovers, and allowed Ryan Fitzpatrick to complete 28 of 41 passes.
The Dolphins’ offensive line is 40% rookies and 40% imported free agents. It is vital that New England generate pressure on the outside with a combined 19 sacks from three linebackers not on the field in 2020 (Collins, Van Noy and Hightower). For Simon and Winovich, those one-on-one battles against Davis and Jackson are match-ups that can make big plays for the New England defense.
Dolphins’ RBs Jordan Howard and Matt Breida vs Patriots’ LBs Ja’Whaun Bentley, Shilique Calhoun and Brandon Copeland
To say the Miami rushing attack was abysmal last season is an understatement. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick led the team with 243 rushing yards for the year. The Dolphins cycled through a hodge-podge of backs including Kalen Ballage, Patrick Laird, Mark Walton, Kenyan Drake, Myles Gaskin and Samaje Perine.
Miami refueled at running back in the offseason signing free agent bruising back Jordan Howard and parlaying a fifth-round draft pick for the explosive (when healthy) Matt Breida. A true “thunder-and-lighting” combination, Howard is six-foot and 224 pounds and a bruising downhill runner who gets better the more he wears down a defense. Breida is five-foot-nine and 190 pounds, but is probably one of the fastest players in the NFL (it’s a toss-up between him and Tyreek Hill).
The Patriots starting linebackers were gutted this offseason. Jamie Collins (whose role had diminished down the stretch) signed in Detroit, Kyle Van Noy will be on the other sideline on Sunday with the Dolphins along with Elandon Roberts and Dont’a Hightower opted out of the season. That leaves the Patriots with Ja’Whaun Bentley, Shilique Calhoun and Brandon Copeland as the likely starters and a trio of rookies coming off the bench.
Bentley would have been starting if not for the veterans ahead of him and 2020 should be a coming-out party taking Hightower’s role in the middle of the defense. He is strong against the run with great instincts and better than advertised in pass coverage. Calhoun and Copeland are unknowns who are entirely competent, especially against the run. Rookies Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings bring athleticism and speed to the defense.
The speed of Breida and the power of Howard should be a good test for the new look second-level of the defense in New England. Copeland has been pegged a special teams player and is getting his first real opportunity to be a key contributor on defense. Ditto for Calhoun who flashed as a run-stopper in a limited role in his first season in New England.
The Dolphins are going to be trying to run the ball early and often to control the time of possession. Although the linebacker group is new, there is talent there. With a shortened offseason, this unit is one that should garner a lot of attention.
Dolphins’ WR DeVante Parker vs Patriots’ CB Stephon Gilmore:
As the inestimable Terrell Ownes once said, “Get your popcorn ready, ‘cause I’m gonna put on a show.” After last season’s week 17 debacle against the Dolphins, this is the match-up to watch on Sunday.
Gilmore was the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and looked it game-in and game-out as a true shutdown cornerback. Except for week 17 against the Dolphins. In that game Parker piled up 137 yards with eight receptions on 11 targets. Parker attacked Gilmore with vertical routes and some nifty double-moves making the All-Pro look pedestrian at times.
Parker is immensely talented and was a first round draft pick in 2015. He has elite size (six-foot-three and 212 pounds) and blazing speed. Injuries and being cursed with Adam Gase as head coach/offensive architect seemed to limit Parker more than anything else.
Prior to Gilmore arriving in New England, Parker’s two best games of his young career was against the Patriots and their smaller cornerbacks with 100+ yard games in 2015 and 2016. Prior to his breakout game in the regular season finale, Parker had a great 2018 season but did little against Gilmore and the Patriots. In four games over three seasons, he had six receptions on 20 targets for just 63 yards.
In fact, in the week two trouncing in 2019, Gilmore and the New England secondary was outstanding as Parker was targeted seven times and was shut out in the box score with no receptions.
This final regular season game must have been gnawing at Gilmore all off-season. After an amazing season, it ends with a blown assignment by Devin McCourty having Gilmore pass off John Brown to no one for a long touchdown in week 16, one of his worst performances in New England against Parker, and then although having a strong game against Corey Davis (another house-of-horrors game for Gilmore in 2018 against a big, young receiver), he was banged up late in the loss
Gilmore has to have a strong game against Parker for the New England defense to keep the Dolphins from making big plays downfield. Gilmore may also see some duty against Preston Williams if the six-foot-five wide receiver is able to get favorable match-ups against the other New England cornerbacks. If the Patriots can slow down Parker, though, it is a huge win for the New England defense.
The game plan on defense is to take away the running game early and have the pass rush create pressure against the new-look Miami offensive line and force Ryan Fitzpatrick into mistakes by taking away his deep options. If New England’s defense remains strong on third down and keeps Fitzpatrick from extending plays and making big plays to extend drives it can allow New England to control the ball on offense. With the New England offense untested, the defense will have to step up if the Patriots expect to continue to bully their AFC East counterparts starting on Sunday.
NEW ENGLAND EXPECTED POINTS ALLOWED: 13
Expected Final Score: New England 24 – Miami 13
The New England Patriots offense has received a ton of negative press and especially the wide receiver unit. However, the offensive line and running game are strengths and the defense should be elite again despite free agent losses and key veterans opting-out. Cam Newton is going to be looking to re-establish himself as a dynamic multi-faceted threat to defenses in 2020.
Miami looked like the worst NFL team ever in week two against the Patriots last year and then looked like a young, dynamic team on the rise in their week 17 upset win knocking New England out of the bye week (and setting up a bad playoffs matchup). Which was the real Miami team? Maybe it is somewhere in between?
The Patriots should do enough on offense and clamp down on defense. Expect a low-scoring first half as both teams get their feet under them after having no preseason games. Newton and the Patriots running game will take over in the second half and look for the defense to make a few big plays and cruise to a week one win to kick off the “Cam Newton Era” in Foxborough, MA.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01 (and @FPC_Patriots for live tweeting with instant analysis during the Patriots games).