Been a while since doing one of these.
We Dolphins fans have had some fun ups and downs, the most notable being the Xavien Howard saga and the DeShaun Watson "What If...?" addiction that so many writers are suffering from. There were also the three preseason games, which I'm proud to say I didn't let myself feel too bad to good about our team's prospects this season.
I'm going to keep it simple and get back to my basics. Namely, looking at what to make of the next game on the schedule, continuing a series that I started in the middle of last season. This one is rather different, as my approach last season was to report on the opponent's two games previous to facing our Dolphins. Obviously, that isn't going to happen since it's the start of the season, and I put as much stock into preseason games as I do fortune cookies having actual bearing on my real life (if that's not clear, it has zero bearing).
All of this is to say that predictions for Week 1 can be tough. Maybe tougher than at any point in the NFL season. Still, I'll give it a shot.The New England Patiots
As has been the case a few times in recent years, our Dolphins kick off the season against the Patriots. It is relatively unusual, though, to do it up in Foxborough. The sadistic schedule monsters in the NFL seem to love thrusting our guys into the frigid climates of Buffalo and Massachusetts in December almost as much as they love putting the Dallas Cowboys on primetime, no matter how consistently mediocre they are (admittedly, this past Thursday Night game was fun, though).
Weirdly, this is the second consecutive year we've started the season in New England. Last year was the gut punch of a Cam Newton-led offense rolling it back to 1970s NFL and power running their way to victory. It didn't help that our Phins were still figuring things out, thanks to the high overall roster turnover and personnel limitations on offense.
This year is a somewhat different animal. The Patriots had several solid players return from opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID. Other than that, they brought in quite a few players who weren't on the roster last year, including a few returnees like Kyle Van Noy. So there is version of continuity to the Patriots roster, something that I firmly believe is a large part of early season success for any NFL team.
And yet, the Patriots also have a lot of faces that are completely new to "The Patriots Way," mostly on offense. This is most obvious in the passing game, where the entire wide receiver, tight end, and quarterback ranks are nearly all comprised of new players. The obvious talent is in the tight end room (not surprising in a Belichick offense), with Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry being brought in. Belichick knows what kind of safety blanket a questionable offense needs, so he broke GM character and paid a hefty fee to bring these guys in.
Aside from that, though, there are serious questions. Here are the Pats starting receivers: Nelson Agholor, Jakobi Meyers, and Kendrick Bourne. Agholor had a resurgent year with the Raiders, to be sure, but your passing game is in some trouble when he's your #1 receiver. Meyers and Bourne have shown to be firmly in the "solid contributor" category, but clearly aren't big-time receivers in a good offense.
Then there's Mac Jones. I won't get too deep into this, but I've almost vomited a few times in hearing Pats stans go on and on about how this kid is Brady 2.0.
Slow down, Massholes.
Maybe Mac Jones will be really good. Obviously, he was really good at Alabama, where he had the elite players around him to cover up his immobility and allow his high-level processing attributes to shine. And he looked good in the preseason, leading quite a few scoring drives. But those drives were often against 2nd and 3rd string competition, and he's about to face a new beast entirely (I'll get to that in a second). Even if Mac Jones becomes the QB that Pats fans dream of and the rest of the NFL dreads, I'm betting against it happening in his first game, or even first month under center. Pats' offenses - even the ones where there's been decent continuity between seasons - are notoriously shaky and vulnerable in September. And having a rookie QB, even a smart one, is going to limit just how good the offense will look on opening day.
The Pats' defense has more familiar faces, so I expect them to be solid, at the very least. Defense has always been Belichick's calling card, and this season will likely be no different. However, they will have a massive absence in the backfield, with All Pro CB Stephon Gilmore out for several weeks due to injury, highlighting a certain lack of depth in the backfield.Our Miami Dolphins
Not unlike the Pats, the Dolphins defense boasts a fair amount of continuity. Lots of familiar faces are back, with none as key as All Pro CB Xavien Howard (massive props to Chris Grier for how he handled what could have been a disaster). Beyond that, the Dolphins bring back plenty of reliable and up-and-coming defenders in every unit. While I don't expect the Phins defense to be quite the turnover-generating machine it was in 2020 (that pace is really tough to maintain), I fully expect them to be a highly active, ball-hawking team that makes opposing QBs' lives utter hell. I expect that only the most seasoned, elite-level quarterbacks will be able to find steady success against this group, and I expect them to be is solid form right from jump. This will be different from last year, when we didn't see the defense really take on its identity until October, once all of the many new players got used to their roles and playing with each other. The run defense was a weakness last year, but it did improve a bit as the season went on. With a bit more experience and talent along the front 7, I don't expect teams to constantly gash us on the ground like we saw through the first half of 2020.
Also similar to the Pats, the Dolphins offense exhibits a lot more turnover than last season, though not quite to the extent of New England. The offensive line has done a little shuffling, and will likely do some more in the weeks to come as Liam Eichenberg gets healthy and is worked into the fold. We'll see how Michael Deiter does as full-time center, where he did a decent job as substitute last season. The running game is still nothing to salivate over, but Gaskin and Ahmed are good players. It's the passing game that we should all be excited about, with the return of Mike Gesicki and the entry/return of a bevy of lightning-quick pass-catchers. We didn't get to see much of them in the preseason, but I'm jumping out of my skin to see what Tua can do while throwing to the likes of Jalen Waddle, Albert Wilson, and eventually Will Fuller V. And that's to say nothing of DeVante Parker and maybe even Jakeem Grant, if Parker can stay healthy and Grant can learn to hold onto balls reliably (big asks, I know, but a boy can dream). I truly think that this crew has the potential to be a wildly entertaining and effective offense, now that Chan Gailey and his tailored-for-Ryan-Fitzpatrick offense is history.Summary and Prediction
Not surprisingly, these teams have more than a little in common. Brian Flores was under Belichick's wing for a long time, so the general approach is very similar. More than that, the teams are in similar positions heading into 2021, with more proven reliability on defense than on offense. And both offenses feature lots of new faces, overseen by young QBs who hail from the same powerhouse college.
But I think our Dolphins have the advantage here. Miami isn't missing a defensive lynchpin like Stephon Gilmore, and I think the speed of our receivers and pass-catching abilities of our tight ends will be able to exploit that. Gesicki alone is a nightmare on defenders, and Smythe,
Shaheen, and Long are no slouches either. I know that the Pats' front seven is pretty ferocious, so Tua will need to be on high alert, but I think he'll be up to the task. He's had a full off-season to get his timing down, and he looked comfortable with that in the preseason.
On the other side of the ball, I see our defense making Mac Jones fully aware that he's not playing against SEC defenses anymore. This isn't just an NFL defense he'll be playing against. It's what I believe has the chance to be a top-5 and maybe even top-3 defense in the entire league, and I have a feeling that they're not going to take long to hit their stride. The Pats' offensive line is going to be really good, but our front seven is solid and crafty. They'll find ways to generate pressure and a sack or three against a rookie QB. I say that confidently since our DB group is so solid. I expect Howard and Jones to shut down the Pats' receivers - who aren't all that scary - allowing guys like Rowe, McCourty, and the other DBs to gang up on tight ends Smith and Henry. Those guys will probably have some yards and moments, but I think our defense can limit the damage.
I would normally say that special teams would be a push, given that Belichick's teams always boast good special teams. I expect that they'll be good again, but I think this Dolphins unit to really put the "special" in that moniker. They were exceptional last season, and it looks like they may have actually upgraded at the punter position, with Matt Haack regressing in 2020. I expect Jason $anders to be what we saw last season. Advantage: Miami.
Prediction: Dolphins 27, Patriots 20
Yep. I'm calling an opening week win for our beloved Dolphins. It's always bold to pick against a Belichick-led Pats team in New England, but I think things line up well for our crew. I was 11-2 on my win/loss predictions last season (didn't start until a few weeks in), and I'll see if I can keep up that level of success. Maybe even improve on it.