New England Patriots

New England Patriots

MIAMI GARDENS, FL: Jaylen Waddle of the Miami Dolphins celebrates with Tua Tagovailoa after scoring a touchdown against the New England Patriots at Hard Rock Stadium on Sept. 11, 2022. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

The New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins often make for exciting matchups, where strange or unexpected things tend to happen.

For the superstitious ones in the football world, that’s the big overarching question hanging over this Patriots-Dolphins game, when NFL eyeballs will be all over them on “Sunday Night Football.” What kind of weird shit’s gonna go down?

Even just in the past five seasons, the Patriots have endured the Miami Miracle, Ryan Fitzpatrick and DeVante Parker roasting Stephon Gilmore for a Week 17 upset in 2019, and Damien Harris’ late fumble ruining a possible win in 2021. So, it would be understandable for Patriots fans to hold their breath until the clock reads triple-zero whenever the Dolphins take the field.

But that doesn’t mean we’re guaranteed to get something weird on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium, when the Patriots (0-1) and Dolphins (1-0) clash for the first time in 2023. Say it’s your standard, run-of-the-mill NFL football game, when the better team over the course of 60 minutes wins the game. Nothing freaky. Nothing goofy. Who’s got the edge? How’s it going to go for the home team?

Fair to ask. Let’s go over five key questions ahead of Patriots-Dolphins that could be major factors in how the game is decided…

Who’s covering the OTHER star receiver?

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA - JANUARY 09: Jaylen Waddle #17 of the Miami Dolphins completes a 7-yard reception for a touchdown over the New England Patriots in the first quarter of the game at Hard Rock Stadium on January 09, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

MIAMI GARDENS, FL: Jaylen Waddle of the Miami Dolphins completes a 7-yard reception for a touchdown against the New England Patriots at Hard Rock Stadium on Jan. 9, 2022. (Mark Brown/Getty Images)

The Patriots’ defensive gameplan will, and should, center around slowing down All-Pro wideout Tyreek Hill. But the Dolphins have a two-headed monster. So what’s the plan with Jaylen Waddle?

If Jonathan Jones (ankle injury) can’t play, that will severely complicate things, because he’s been their guy covering Hill for years. But let’s say he’s in, or his absence wouldn’t dramatically alter the gameplan. It’ll be interesting to see who the Patriots deploy against Waddle, a game-changing slot receiver that can make big plays with his high-end speed and slipperiness after the catch.

Safe money could be on rookie cornerback Christian Gonzalez, who has already earned a lot of trust from the Patriots’ coaching staff and has the requisite speed to keep up with top-end speed guys like Waddle. But if they’re going to slow down both Hill and Waddle, it’s going to take a total team effort.

“we play together,” Gonzalez said Friday. “Whoever’s gonna be out there, we’re all gonna go and just do what we’ve got to do. Like, I was talking about the gameplan; everybody’s ready to go. We’re excited.”

  • Will they get their details down?

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 10: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots and Mike Gesicki #88 walk through the tunnel before the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Gillette Stadium on September 10, 2023 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MA: Mac Jones and Mike Gesicki of the New England Patriots walk through the tunnel before a game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Gillette Stadium on Sept. 10, 2023. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    Part of the reason why the Patriots couldn’t earn a win over the Eagles last week – and why they’ve been having trouble winning competitive games in general – is the little details. Penalties. Turnovers. One foot in bounds.

    Can the Pats, especially Mac Jones and the offense, sew up those details? They’ll also need to make some actual plays, particularly in high-leverage spots. But they were there to be made in key spots against the Eagles, if not for subpar execution. But if they can take those things up a notch or three, they could push themselves from merely being “competitive” in games to actually winning.

    “I think it’s just the little stuff, the stuff that we kind of beat ourselves with,” tight end Mike Gesicki said after the Eagles game. “We can’t turn the ball over, obviously. Nobody’s trying to – it’s part of the game. … We’ve just got to buckle down a little bit and get ready for Week 2.”

  • Can they make Tua pay?

    INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 10: Tua Tagovailoa #1 of the Miami Dolphins looks to pass in the third quarter during a 36-34 Dolphins win over the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium on September 10, 2023 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

    INGLEWOOD, CA: Tua Tagovailoa of the Miami Dolphins looks to pass during a 36-34 Dolphins win over the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium on Sept. 10, 2023. (Harry How/Getty Images)

    Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa made plenty of winning plays in a 36-34 comeback win over the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 1, leading the league with 466 passing yards and firing the go-ahead touchdown pass to Hill with less than two minutes to go in the game. But he also threw an interception earlier in the contest and often pops up in the discussion around the nebulous Pro Football Focus stat, “turnover-worthy plays.”

    Tagovailoa does have a propensity to occasionally chuck the ball deep into danger, a flaw that reared its ugly head as recently as last week against the Chargers. But Justin Herbert couldn’t cash in on that turnover, going three-and-out. Can the Patriots really make Tua pay for the occasional head-scratching turnover? That could really swing the game in their favor.

  • How can Mac Jones protect his offensive line?

    Sep 10, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) throws a pass during the second half against the Philadelphia Eagles at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    Sept. 10, 2023; Foxborough, MA: New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones throws a pass during a game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Gillette Stadium. (Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

    Wait, shouldn’t that be the other way around? Not necessarily, especially considering Jones and the Patriots offense have the majority of their starting offensive linemen on this week’s injury report. And Jones was already covering up for their issues there.

    Jones averaged the fourth-lowest time to throw (2.52 seconds) in Week 1, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That means he was the fourth-quickest quarterback to get rid of the ball. And he had to do it, because the blocking in front of him wasn’t so crisp.

    The Patriots have a bit less of a challenge in front of them with the Dolphins’ defensive front, as opposed to the Eagles. But it’s likely that Jones and Bill O’Brien¬†will have to employ another gameplan that emphasizes quick decision-making, if only to make up for shaky pass protection.

  • Will the run game take advantage?

    Dec 12, 2022; Glendale, Arizona, USA; New England Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson (38) against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    New England Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

    The Dolphins’ run defense is off to a bad start. After Week 1, they rank 31st in yards per rush allowed (5.8) overall. According to NFL Game Stats and Info, they rank in the bottom half of the league in six of seven “play directions” (left tackle, up the middle, etc.) against the rush, including 32nd around the left edge (9.5 yards/rush).

    Rhamondre Stevenson, meanwhile, didn’t look entirely like himself against the Eagles (2.1 yards per run) after dealing with an illness during the week, but he did break off a 32-yard catch-and-run to set up a late touchdown. Ezekiel Elliott looked solid in his Patriots debut, when he wasn’t fumbling. The opportunity’s there for the Patriots to move the ball on the ground against Miami.

  • Click here for complete New England Patriots coverage at 985TheSportsHub.com.

    Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster 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 and follow him on Instagram @realmattdolloff. Check out all of Matt’s content here.

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