We're back! (The royal "we")
Pre-season is over. The universal bye week is in the rear-view mirror. The opening NFL tilt has come and gone, with the Bills making quite the statement by drubbing the defending champion Rams. It's now time for the first NFL Sunday in far too long, which means it's time for me to exorcise my pre-game anxiety via a game prediction post.
The last two years that I've done these, I always included a "scouting" report based on the opponents' previous two games. Obviously, that's not an option in week 1. Like everyone else, I have to simply go off pre-season games, training camp reporting, and the general vibes of the teams based on their rosters and coaching staffs.
I admit that I don't keep super close notes on all the comings and goings of non-Dolphins personnel during the off-season, so I won't bother with a player-by-player or coach-by-coach rundown of the changes between the the 2021 and 2022 versions of the Patriots. I'll stick to a few obvious changes and what they might mean.
Patriots '21 vs. '22
The Pats in 2021 were sort of a paper tiger. As they have often done in Bill Belichick's 21-year reign, they started slow, going 1-3 to open the season. Then, also true to form, they got it all together and went 8-1 over their next 9 games. Several of these were trouncings of objectively bad teams like the Jets, Falcons, Texans, and Panthers. But there were also a few solid wins over good teams like the Chargers, Titans, and Bills. Alas, the Pats' weaknesses were fairly well exposed in their final 4 games, when they went 1-3, with the lone win coming in a 50-10 laugher over the historically dysfunctional Jacksonville Jaguars. New England was further outed as a pretender in their embarrassing 47-17 loss to Buffalo in the Wildcard game.
Once the dust cleared, it was easier to see what the 2021 Patriots were. They were a team that, thanks to a savvy head coach, a very good defense, and an offensive plan that knew how to mask its clear weaknesses in the passing game, was able to routinely beat bad teams and even some talented teams with inexperienced head coaches. Ultimately, though, they lacked the top-tier players on offense to overcome good defenses. They were a fringe team that edged out our Dolphins for the Wildcard due more to stability and experience than any sort of talent discrepancy.
In the off-season, the Pats had some significant losses, most notably in the coaching ranks. Long-time offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels finally, actually left again. And this time he didn't jerk the Raiders around. In his absence, Bill Belichick took a page out of Brian Flores' book and went with, shall we say "interesting," choices to take over the offensive coordination. The reins now belong to the two-headed beast that is Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, two former BB disciples who failed spectacularly in their attempts to be head coaches, and neither of whom have a lick of experience as OCs. There was also some attrition in the actual roster, but I'll get into that shortly.
Dolphins Offense vs. Pats Defense
I expect the Pats defense to still be good. Belichick's defenses are rarely less than top-10 caliber, and this year will probably not be different. That said, I don't see them being an elite group. There's no Stephon Gilmore or really any other top-flight player. While there are a number of solid, professional, reliable NFL starters there, Matthew Judon is the only potential "game breaker" type. I really expect the 2022 Pats defense to be very similar to last year's version: they're going to embarrass opposing offenses that lack talent. They'll outsmart offenses with a bit of talent but lacking in experience or good coaching. And they'll get beat - sometimes badly - by offenses that have two or more elite-level offensive players and a play-caller who isn't intimidated by the aura of Belichick.
With that assessment in mind, let's look at the Fins' revamped offense:
- QB Tua Tagovailoa will, for the first time in the NFL, be heading into a season healthy, with a full off-season of his head coach's support, and with an offensive scheme that seems designed to help him thrive.
- The RB room has seen massive upgrades in the additions of burner Raheem Mostert and all-around back Chase Allen. Last year's de facto #1 back, the capable-but-limited Miles Gaskin, is now the 3rd-stringer.
- The WR room sees the return of Jalen Waddle after his dazzling rookie campaign, and the additions of perennial All-Pro and human gazelle Tyreek Hill, along with Cedric Wilson. Oh, and 4th-round draft pick Eric Ezukanma looked very much in the pre-season like a man who is going to make plenty of big plays in his NFL career.
- Additions and adjustments to the offensive line that will all but guarantee that the bottom-3 O line that we suffered through in 2021 should be significantly improved. I know better than to think they'll be great, but I think it's very reasonable to think that they'll be at least a middle-of-the-pack unit in the league.
- As opposed to the "who the hell is that?" room of offensive coaches that offensively-challenged Brian Flores assembled in 2021, we actually have experienced, accomplished minds on the offensive side of the ball this year. No bizarro, three-tiered system of play calling. We now have Mike McDaniel on the mic, and he's excelled in all of his offensive jobs to date.
All of this is to say that I think our Fins offense shouldn't have too many problems moving the ball and scoring points on Sunday. There are still a lot of new parts, and it's a whole new system, so there will certainly be bumps in the road. But I think the top-flight talent on that side of the ball should be enough to overcome the Pats' disciplined but talent-limited defense.
Dolphins Defense vs Pats Offense
If you've listened at all to any assessment of how the Patriots offense has looked in training camps and in the off-season, you are probably excited about tomorrow. By nearly every account, the New England offense has been a mess. They lost a couple of offensive linemen, including the talented Shaq Mason. Their running backs are solid but not spectacular, and things are bound to be a bit tougher for them this season, running behind a lesser offensive line. Their two best receivers are Nelson Agholor and DeVante Parker. Agholor came back to earth last year after a resurgent 2020 in Las Vegas, and Parker we know can be great at times and invisible at others. The tight ends are still considerable in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, though Smith was awful last year.
The Dolphins defense is rather impressive, as those who have been watching can tell anyone. The interior front features multiple mashers in Christian Wilkins, Zack Sieler, Raekwon Davis, and even the veteran John Jenkins. All have proven to be outstanding run-stuffers who can overwhelm all but the stoutest offensive line interiors. Linebackers Emmanuel Ogbah and sophomore Jaelen Philips showed how dangerous they can be off the edges last year, and Pats' QB Mac Jones is hardly fleet of foot or especially agile. And with a drop in the Pats' offensive line talent, I foresee more than a little pressure being applied on the 2nd-year QB. I'm not especially worried about the Pats wide receivers. If the Pats make any hay, it could be over the middle, if they can utilize their tight ends and maybe some short passes to the RBs here and there. But if the Fins can keep a reasonable lid on that, then I can't see the Pats offense finding a ton of success.
Jason Sanders appears to be back, folks. He was nailing 50+ yard field goals in the pre-season, looking very much like his All-Pro worthy, 2021 self. The punt and kick coverage was great last year, and I expect it to be similar, though the loss of super special teamer Mack Hollins will likely be felt. I'm not totally sold on the new punter Thomas Morstead yet, due to some shaky punts earlier in the pre-season, but he looked much better in game 3.
The Pats always have solid special teams, so this is a push.
Belichick always gets the nod here, but I actually think it's less of one with Mike McDaniel at the helm. I have a feeling that Mike won't be rattled by BB's mere presence, and he won't be baited into making silly decisions like many, many other younger head coaches have in the past. Even if BB does get the better of him on a few plays here and there, I just think that McDaniel will maintain his poise and keep his team ready. On top of this, I think the Fins have a solid advantage in terms of coordinators.
Prediction: Dolphins 31, Pats 17
Given everything I've described and the fact that this game is in Miami, where Belichick has always had more trouble winning, even with his great teams of the past, I think we take the season opener again. My final score prediction is admittedly a little optimistic, but I really think this offense has everything it needs to be great.
Let me know how you're all feeling in the comments. Fins up!!!