Reeling from four-straight losses, the Miami Dolphins hit the road in Week 17 looking to get back to winning football by completing the season sweep of the New England Patriots. Both teams enter the week in the AFC playoff picture, with Miami currently in the seventh-seed position while the Patriots are the first team on the outside looking in. Sunday’s afternoon could be the springboard that pushes one of the teams into the postseason.
New England comes into this game having lost their last two games and looking to figure out who they are, especially at the quarterback position. Mac Jones has not played like the Pro Bowl selection he was last season as a rookie, but figuring out his future under center for the Patriots is difficult with Matt Patricia, a defensive coach, serving as the de facto offensive coordinator this year while Joe Judge, a special teams coach, is the quarterbacks coach. It is an odd set up that has not paid off as much as head coach Bill Belichick may have hoped.
It has been 16 weeks since the Dolphins and the Patriots met in Miami. As they prepare for this weekend’s second half of the annual home-and-home series, I had a chance to speak with Taylor Kyles from Pats Pulpit to get a better idea of who New England is at this point in the season. We spoke about Jones, Patricia and Judge, the Patriots’ defense, and former Dolphins now New England wide receiver DeVante Parker.
Mac Jones was a Pro Bowl selection last year as a rookie, but his stats are down across the board this year, including his completion percentage down two points, his yards per attempt down almost half a yard, and his passer rating falling from 92.5 to 84.6 for the year. While you really do not know who a quarterback is until his third season (see Josh Allen and Tua Tagovailoa), how are Patriots fans feeling about Jones? Is he still the franchise quarterback of the future for New England?
From what I’ve seen, fan opinions on Jones are scattered, but mostly trend negative. Some are understandably not sold on him as the franchise’s future and place a lot of the blame for this year at his feet.
Jones deserved criticism early in the year for turning the ball over on a weekly basis, and he still deserves a slice of the accountability pie for some missed reads and inconsistent accuracy. That said, I think it’s disingenuous to say this is a clear picture of who Mac Jones is as a quarterback considering the uphill battle he’s faced this season. The Patriots’ offensive staff was gutted before the season, including losses at offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach, offensive line coach, and wide receivers coach. Bill Belichick’s replacements haven’t exactly panned out, and since the season started the offense has been plagued by scheme shifts, inconsistent play, and injuries at key spots. Jones has done good things this year and I don’t think most young quarterbacks would’ve been able to overcome New England’s offensive situation.
So if you’re asking me if he’s the franchise, I say he has the potential, but it’s too soon to tell. We’ve seen Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields take jumps under staffs that catered to their strengths and brought an element of stability, so the hope is that happens for Mac Jones in Year 3.
We are almost a year into the weird Matt Patricia and Joe Judge offensive system for the Patriots. Who would have thought a defensive coordinator and a special teams coordinator would not have the most explosive offensive scheme? I have heard Bill O’Brien floated as a possible addition to the Patriot’s staff for next year - reuniting him with Bill Belichick and continuing the Alabama and New England redemption tour for former head coaches. What has worked and what has not in the Patricia/Judge offensive system and what do you think next year looks like for the Patriots staff?
Matt Patricia seems to be running things for the Patriots’ offense this season. Before Mac Jones’ high ankle sprain, New England’s passing attack used a lot of spread looks from shotgun that leaned on downfield concepts to generate big plays, but resulted in a lot of interceptions. It became clear after a month that this strategy didn’t match their personnel, especially once Bailey Zappe thrived under the Patriots’ classic scheme that featured quick passes, play-action, and screens. After a disastrous Monday Night performance, the Patriots started going back to these roots and Jones’ turnover numbers shot down.
However, injuries and poor play on the offensive line have forced the Patriots to become hyper-conservative, leaning on young stud Rhamondre Stevenson to carry the offense on the ground and through the air. While Stevenson is a great player, he’s taken on an impossible workload and I think you can see it in some of his recent performances.
Kendrick Bourne showed the electric playmaking he flashed last season during Week 16’s comeback attempt against the Bengals, so here’s hoping New England feeds him the rock on Sunday.
That was a lot of offensive talk, so we should probably move to the defense. In Week 1, Miami won 20-7 in large part because quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw for 270 yards and finished with a 104.4 passer rating, with Tyreek Hill picking up 94 yards on eight receptions in his Dolphins debut and Jaylen Waddle adding four receptions for 69 yards and the score. No where in there did I mention the running game, because Miami picked up an average of 2.8 yards on 23 rushing attempts in the game - just a bad look on the ground for Miami. Fast forward to Week 17, and the Dolphins have moved on from Week 1’s top running back Chase Edmonds, using Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson as a two-headed approach to the rushing attack - when they decide to actually use them. This is a really long way of simply asking, with the Dolphins likely to start Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback and potentially turning to the run game more than they have recently, how can the Dolphins find success this weekend? Where is the strength of the Patriots defense and where are their weaknesses?
Strength: Pass rush. Pro Bowler Matthew Judon has thrived in New England’s stunt-heavy defensive scheme, while former Michigan Wolverine Josh Uche has finally come on after battling injuries and being buried on the depth chart his first couple of seasons. Uche’s got Von Miller-esque bend and explosiveness, and he’s been producing on a weekly basis for the past couple of months. Deatrich Wise has also been a force inside and out with his power and massive arms. Christian Barmore has also returned and added a spark inside after missing much of the season.
Weakness: Linebackers. While Ja’Whaun Bentley is playing at a very high level despite his throwback body type, the players behind him are unproven and were picked on when these teams met in Week 1. Top backup Jahlani Tavai has really come on in the latter half of the season, but he’s still growing as a coverage defender. Former Dolphin Raekwon McMillan has also improved throughout the season, but every now and then he’ll badly miss on a coverage assignment. Mack Wilson looked good as a spy and blitzer on passing downs, but he’s had some lowlights so bad he’s essentially been demoted to a special teams-only player.
It does not seem like he will play as he continues to deal with a concussion, but, now that we are almost through the season, it is time to look at wide receiver DeVante Parker. During his time in Miami, he always seemed one step away from being a break-out, dominant wide receiver, and when he started to make that step, an injury would sideline him. He has his highest per-reception average since his rookie year this season, but he also has only 25 receptions on the year and in most games he is recording two or fewer receptions. What are your thoughts on Parker, how he was used, and if he was effective this year?
There were some early growing pains (as Dolphins fans saw on New England’s first drive of the season), but Parker has been exactly what he was advertised to be. He’s served as the team’s primary X receiver when on the field and has mostly been targeted on his signature go routes, but he also looked good underneath as the low crosser on vertical concepts and on slant targets. Parker looks like a difference-maker down the sideline when healthy and makes up for lack of separation with outstanding 50-50 ability, but he hasn’t been available enough to rely on weekly. I’d say his first season in New England was disappointing, but more due to injuries than Parker’s performance.
The line for this game initially had Miami favored by two points, then moved to 1.5 points in the Dolphins’ favor by Monday morning, according to the oddsmakers at DraftKings Sportsbook. When the concussion news for quarterback Tua Tagovailoa came out, the line immediately flipped, putting the Patriots into the favorite role, with the line extending to three points now. Do you think the swing in the odds with the change in quarterbacks for Miami is accurate? How do you see this game playing out?
I actually like the Dolphins’ chances a bit more with Teddy Bridgewater under center. The Patriots were able to contain Miami by bringing consistent pressure in Week 1, which I think Teddy handles better than Tua. That said, I’m sure Tagovailoa’s lightning-quick processing and manipulative eyes will be missed by Dolphins fans. If the Patriots are ultimately down all but one of their top corners this week, it could be a very long day for their defense.
Offensively, the Patriots could have their best day of the season against a leaky Dolphins defense, but I’m not banking on it with how inconsistent this unit has been.
I’d predict a slow game that heats up in the 2nd half once each team adjusts. There could be a few touchdowns scored late, but I think the Patriots ultimately pull this out in a close one.