By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
There were barely any moments on Sunday where you thought, "They could've used a preseason." The Patriots are ready to go for 2020 after getting a win over the Dolphins, and you can thank Bill Belichick for that.
Outside of a couple of glaring blunders, the Patriots minimized their mistakes and looked like a functional, often productive operation in all three phases of the game in a 21-11 victory. If not for N'Keal Harry's goal line fumble, clearly the worst mistake of the game for the Pats, they could have won this running away. They ran away with it anyway, rushing a whopping 42 times in a new-look offense led by new starting quarterback Cam Newton.
Belichick always answers questions about how he runs his offense with something along the lines of, "We just want to move the ball and score points." It's hard to believe that the Patriots could win their customary 11-plus games and make a Super Bowl run without getting more out of their passing game, but for Sunday, all that mattered was that they moved the ball the way they planned.
So far, so good. The Pats rushed for 217 yards, a 5.2-yard average. When called upon to throw, Newton was a highly efficient 15-for-19 (78.9 percent). One of his incompletions was a Julian Edelman drop, two others were batted at the line of scrimmage. Most importantly, he protected the football - no turnovers.
This was a far cry from the dysfunctional offense we saw in Tom Brady's final season. The quarterback appears to be on the same page with the coach and his receivers. The offensive line got its groove back with the return of David Andrews. Perhaps most impressive was the zero penalties on offense.
"That's one of the things that when you make mistakes that are unforced mistakes, it obviously just gives your opponents extra opportunities and free yards and that kind of thing," Belichick said. "It's really not – I mean, we never want to do that. There were a couple of close calls on the penalties. Not sure what it looked like, they were very close. And that's football. You're going to get some of those and you're not going to get some of them. But I think it's the ones you're referring to – the false starts, the too many men on the field, the lining up offsides, illegal motion, all of those kind of unforced errors – you just can't afford. It just gives your opponents too many opportunities.
"So, we’ve obviously always harped on those, but the players did a great job of staying focused and concentrating. Nobody's been able to play 60 minutes of football this year, but they went out and did it and executed well at the end on both sides of the ball and in the kicking game. So that's, again, a real credit to the players. But, yeah, certainly playing penalty-free or minimal penalties – that is always one of our goals. Glad we were able to do that today. The game got a little chippy at times and we didn't have any retaliation or personal foul penalties. The guys kept their poise there in a couple of those situations near the end of the game."
How many people expected this offense to sputter out of the gate? How many thought the Newton-run unit would look messy to start, with the truncated offseason and Newton having arrived only in late June? It wouldn't have been a big surprise if we saw a lot of the aforementioned "unforced errors."
But we didn't, because the Patriots still have Belichick, the league's greatest matchup advantage.
On defense, the penalties came in the form of a few borderline pass interference calls on Stephon Gilmore. But this is a unit that has also undergone major changes. Yet with younger, less experienced players thrust into major roles, the defense also made plays and mostly avoided back-breaking mistakes.
They may not have the most talent in the league on defense, but they're likely to have the best coaching. It showed.
"I thought defensively it's a lot better than the, whatever, 27 points we gave up last year to them," Belichick said. "We played more competitively there, and had we not given up a couple of tough plays there at the end of the half and then at fourth-and-1, you know, we'd make the play on that and get called for interference. So, we could have had a little better day than we did, but overall holding an explosive team like that to 10 points is – that's a pretty good day's work. Plus to get three turnovers out of it from the defensive backs, that's good."
Maybe at this point in the season, it's all about having your fundamentals down and keeping your mistakes to a minimum. The Patriots would have been on their way to a blowout had Harry not fumbled that ball at the goal line. If he corrects that mistake and protects the ball next time, that will be another success for Belichick.
The Patriots may have to win some games with coaching and discipline. For Belichick and his staff, it's tough to ask for a better start.
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].