MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Entering Sunday’s game at Hard Rock Stadium, much of the focus on the Patriots centered around the ultra-humid climate and the debut of offensive play-caller Matt Patrica.
Would New England’s players be more prepared for the heat after making an unprecedentedly early trip to South Florida? Would Patricia adequately replace Josh McDaniels, if only for a day? And, bonus question: Would the Patriots defense show well against an improved Dolphins offense led by whizz-kid head coach Mike McDaniel?
For the most part, the answer to all those questions wound up being “yes”. And yet, the Patriots opened their season with a dispiriting 20-7 loss to the Dolphins, allowing Tua Tagovailoa to improve his record against Bill Belichick to 4-0.
That’s because the Patriots on Sunday looked (and sounded) an awful lot like the team we saw late last season — in all the worst ways.
Myriad issues doomed New England in 2021. Among them: turnovers, slow starts, penalties, poor execution in key situations, bad situational defense and a penchant for allowing things to snowball — even in the Miami heat.
All of those problems cropped up — and often overlapped — in Sunday’s loss. And that’s alarming, considering just how much stock Belichick and his players put into the game.
The Patriots committed three turnovers to the Dolphins’ zero, including a deflating interception on a promising opening drive and a fate-sealing fumble on their final possession. In between, there was a strip-sack fumble that resulted in a Miami touchdown.
New England’s offense actually started fast Sunday before Jones was picked off in the end zone by Jevon Holland. It was reminiscent of the Patriots’ first drive in their wild-card loss to the Bills, who allowed New England to drive deep into Buffalo territory before Micah Hyde intercepted Jones near the goal line. In both cases, the opposing offenses scored off the turnovers and built leads they never relinquished. The Patriots needed to start fast in Miami; instead, they trailed 17-0 at halftime.
Statistically, the Dolphins were penalized more than the Patriots. However, if you include penalties that were declined, both teams were flagged five times. And all of New England’s were inopportune. You had Carl Davis jumping offsides on a fourth down with the Dolphins eventually kicking a field goal. You had Hunter Henry committing a false start that put New England in a 3rd-and-long that it actually converted. You had David Andrews getting flagged in the fourth quarter for a chop-block penalty that offset a roughing-the-passer call on Holland. You had Trent Brown committing a fourth-down holding penalty on the next drive. And, to top it all off, you had a too-many-men-on-the-field-penalty on a late-game third down. Tagovailoa took a knee on the next two plays.
The Patriots’ much-maligned offensive line was solid on Sunday. But, as we saw late in 2021, the group failed in key spots. New England rebounded from its disappointing first drive with an encouraging second possession, but, after Agholor bailed out Henry with a big gain on third down, the O-line allowed Jones to get sacked for a 7-yard loss and didn’t hold up on a 2-yard run loss from Ty Montgomery. The Patriots didn’t convert on 3rd-and-long but did force the Dolphins to punt on their next drive. Upon getting the ball back, Jones was strip-sacked at his own 10-yard line by an unblocked Brandon Jones, who watched Melvin Ingram recover the fumble and walk into the end zone. The score was only 10-0, but the game felt over.
New England’s defense only allowed 13 points and more or less did a good job against McDaniel’s offense. But its shortcomings in situational moments proved costly. There was Davis’ penalty on fourth down. There was the disastrous fourth-down failure that allowed Jaylen Waddle to rip off a 42-yard touchdown just before halftime. There was allowing Miami to go 6-for-13 on third downs, including two conversions on its final drive. As was the case in both games last year, the Patriots couldn’t get Tagovailoa and the Dolphins off the field when they needed to.
And then there’s the snowball effect.
The Patriots showed an inability to rebound from rough starts during their second-half swoon last season. It happened against the Indianapolis Colts, twice against the Bills and in the regular-season finale against the Dolphins. And it happened again Sunday afternoon. New England looked great on its opening drive, but as soon as Jones was picked off in the end zone, you got a feeling the Patriots wouldn’t recover. That such an outcome remains predictable is especially concerning.
Finally, something needs to be said about the overall attitude of the Patriots, including what Patriots and coaches say after the games.
Belichick, once a man deadly allergic to excuses, now is all about finding a silver lining.
“It was really a pretty even game,” Belichick said. “Two big plays, 14 points, really skewed the game. Moved the ball. We couldn’t get enough points, and we got into their territory.”
That’s one way to look at scoring seven points while turning the ball over three times.
“I think there was a lot of positives,” Andrews said. “Parts of me are encouraged. Parts of me are — you know, let one slip away.”
Devin McCourty was hard on himself and the team after the game but did say this: “It wasn’t a game where we just got completely dominated.”
In a vacuum, all of that is true. The Patriots really were a couple of plays away from leading Sunday’s game at various points. If you squint hard enough, you could argue New England and Miami looked evenly matched.
Plus, the offense showed signs of life after a dreadful training camp. It wasn’t an abject disaster in the season opener despite some expecting it would be.
But here’s the uncomfortable reality: The Patriots now are at the point where they’re searching for moral victories against the Dolphins. Clinging to positives after a loss to a divisional rival has become standard. Moreover, they’ve become incapable of overcoming big mistakes, often allowing games to be decided by one or two key plays.
Those are signs of a mediocre team. That’s what the Patriots ultimately were in 2021, and that’s what they looked and sounded like on Sunday.