By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The wait for football season felt longer in 2020. But finally, mercifully, the Patriots are back - and so is the unpredictable roller coaster of their annual matchups with the Miami Dolphins.
NFL PR tweeted on Monday that only one player out of 8,349 combined players and team personnel tested positive for COVID-19 last week, so the bubble-less NFL has the virus on lockdown for now. But the stadiums will still be mostly devoid of fans - including Gillette Stadium, where the Pats will host Miami for the 2020 regular season opener on Sunday at 1 p.m.
The quarterback in Foxboro remains a major national story. But for the tale of the man who stayed, Bill Belichick, it's a new chapter - a whole new novel, even. Belichick is tasked with navigating an entire season without Tom Brady as the starting quarterback for the first time in 20 years. Walking through that door is Cam Newton, who certainly seems more motivated to play his best football - specifically for Belichick - than Brady did in his final two seasons here. The change in mindset at the most important position on the field could be crucial in determining the fate of the 2020 offense.
On the other side is a defense that still wants to wash out the bitter taste of what Ryan Fitzpatrick did to them in Week 17 last season.
The Dolphins ended up with just 20 offensive points in their shocking win in Foxboro, but Fizpatrick found a way to come up with his latest sudden explosion known endearingly as "Fitzmagic." The journeyman went 9-for-12 for 77 yards and a game-winning touchdown to tight end Mike Gesicki in the final two minutes, dramatically altering the Patriots' playoff landscape while adding another surreal spectacle to the Dolphins' history of bizarre conquests of the Belichick-Brady empire.
Does Newton have the same kind of magic in him that Brady had so many times? Does Fitzpatrick have another big game coming from the clouds? It may be hard to predict which Fitzpatrick will show up on Sunday, but this is a guy who will have to perform to keep his job with No. 5 overall pick Tua Tagovailoa behind him. If the game is close in the fourth quarter, it will be fascinating to see which quarterback rises to a higher occasion.
With that in mind, let's go over some of the other big storylines entering Sunday's season opener between the Patriots and Dolphins...
Vengeance Served Cold
Stephon Gilmore may be the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, but he earned the much-deserved honor in spite of his last game against Miami, not because of it. DeVante Parker is back and likely in Gilmore's grill once again.
It's time for Gilmore to put Parker in his place. Though the latter is a former first-round pick who finally found that form in his fifth season, Gilmore has wiped out more accomplished and arguably more talented receivers. Not only will they have to avoid the disaster of the last game - in which Parker caught three balls for 37 yards on Miami's game-winning drive, most notably a field-flipping 24-yard catch over Gilmore - eliminating Parker entirely should be within the cornerback's grasp.
When asked about his motivation to play against Parker, Gilmore echoed a sentiment he's even shared after good games: all that matters is the next one.
"The good thing about football, every year starts over," Gilmore said. "So, you know, you’ve got a chance to prove yourself every year. This is the first game that you get the opportunity to go out there and prove yourself. I take that mindset each and every week no matter what happened last year, the year before. I try to prove myself each and every week and every game. I’m looking forward to it."
Gilmore won DPOY because he dominated matchups like this, with an icy touch. The Patriots may need the quiet assassin to get his revenge in order to start 2020 in the win column.
A Pupil's Revenge
For a long time, Bill Belichick had the clear edge in games against his former assistants. But he's 2-3 in his last five dating back to the start of the 2018 season, making him an un-Belichickian 14-11 against ex-assistant coaches in the regular season. The list includes Nick Saban and Al Groh, who served under him in Cleveland, and does not include former players like Titans head coach Mike Vrabel.
Even Bill O'Brien and the hapless Houston Texans grabbed a win over Belichick last season. Take O'Brien's 1-5 record out of the equation, and... you know. Belichick certainly has his share of impressive wins against former understudies, but history indicates these showdowns are more of a toss-up.
Winning The Trenches
Comparing positional groups against each other, offensive line is as area where the Patriots hold a distinct advantage over the Dolphins. Starting center David Andrews is back, which should absolutely solidify the interior and bolster the run game compared to 2019. Jermaine Eluemunor, the projected starter at right tackle, is the only clear question mark. But this is a group that is much closer to the kind of continuity it had in 2018, when it was arguably the team's most valuable unit on the roster.
Contrast that with the Dolphins' offensive line, which is fielding four new starters. That includes former Patriot Ted Karras, who had an up-and-down year filling in for Andrews at center in 2019. They also have two rookies: first-rounder Austin Jackson at left tackle, and fourth-rounder Solomon Kindley out of Georgia. Left guard Ereck Flowers is a converted tackle. There's raw talent in this group, but it's likely that the Patriots' line looks more ready to go in this game. We'll see if that translates to more offensive production.
Miami is quickly becoming "New England South Beach." (Don't steal that.) Beyond head coach Brian Flores, the former Patriots linebackers coach who called defensive plays in 2018, the Dolphins also have defensive coordinator Josh Boyer, who was the Patriots' cornerbacks coach from 2012-18.
The Patriot influence has spread to the roster. Linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts joined Miami via free agency in the offseason, as did Karras. They already had defensive back Eric Rowe, who's actually playing safety now, and LB Calvin Munson. We'll see if their intimate familiarity with the Patriots helps them on Sunday.
Based on a recent column by Armando Salguero in the Miami Herald, Flores has worked a lot on evolving as a coach and how he interacts with players. He's known to be demanding, and it rubbed some players the wrong way - namely safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, linebacker Kiko Alonso, and receiver Kenny Stills. All three were traded.
Bringing in Van Noy, Roberts, and Karras aims to help bridge the gap between Flores and newer players who may not fully understand his coaching style. But Flores is learning, too: “I think it’s like any relationship you have — friendships, relationships — over time, relationships evolve,” he told the Herald. “I think the players who were here a year ago, they’re more comfortable with me, [and] I’m more comfortable with them."
It sounds like "Coach Flo" is as dedicated to constantly getting better as he expects his players to be.
Chan Gailey is back in the NFL after three seasons away from the pros. He's bounced back and forth between college and the NFL for decades, having served as offensive coordinator for five different teams. He's now in his second stint with the Dolphins, having last coordinated an NFL offense with the Jets in 2016. And Belichick has seen a lot of him over the years.
Gailey's spread offense was more cutting-edge in 2000 than it is now, but he's known as a coach who tailors his system well to his personnel and gets a lot out of his wideouts. You're likely to see plenty of three- and four-receiver sets and a lot of throws outside the hash marks.
"Chan has had lot of success in this league of running his style offense, but he may modify that some and do something that would take advantage of Miami's personnel or maybe philosophically he has some different ideas, you know, than what he had, when we saw him at the Jets most recently," Belichick said during a video conference Tuesday. "So we're just going to have to wait and see on that."
It will be interesting to see if Gailey has his typical plan of attack on Sunday, because it could play right into the Patriots' hands. New England is armed with arguably the NFL's best cornerback group with Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson, and Jonathan Jones atop the depth chart. Gailey must know he has to throw Belichick a curveball or two to have sustained success against that secondary, so we'll see what's in his bag of tricks. He's looking to improve upon his teams' 2-5 record against Belichick as an offensive coordinator.
Thanks for reading this preview for Patriots-Dolphins. We have more for you: listen to our own Alex Barth and I preview the Patriots' 2020 season and Sunday's game in the podcast below.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff or send him a nasty email at [email protected].