Patriots 6-pack Preview: New-look Dolphins a familiar foe

Andy Hart
September 13, 2019 - 6:44 am

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The Patriots were dominant in Week 1, blowing out the Steelers at Gillette Stadium 33-3.

The Dolphins, on the other hand, were dominated by the Ravens 59-10.

So it’s probably not surprising that the Patriots are nearly a three-touchdown favorite for their Week 2 trip to Miami, one of the largest road favorites in NFL history.

And yet, there are some reasons to doubt New England’s ability to head south and simply dispatch the Dolphins with expected ease.

First, is the fact that the Patriots have lost five of their last six trips to Hard Rock Stadium, including the Miami Miracle debacle last December.

Second, Brian Flores will be in his second game as the Dolphins head coach, moving on in the AFC East after a career as a Belichick defensive assistant that concluded with a brilliant performance by his unit in a 13-3 win over the high-powered Rams in Super Bowl LIII.

As Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel and Detroit’s Matt Patricia proved a year ago, sometimes familiarity with Belichick can lay the foundation for a road upset.

“It's been a tough matchup for us down there. We've got to do a better job than we've done in the past if we expect different results, and we'll work toward trying to get that,” Belichick said of New England’s issues in trips to Miami that dates back decades, even before his tenure in Foxborough.

“We've had – for one reason or another – just struggles over a lot of years. I think they even predate me, which is hard to say because I've been here for a while,” Tom Brady said. “But, five of our last six we've lost. It's a challenging place to play. It's just, I think, dealing with a lot of different elements and showing mental toughness. Last year, I thought we played a pretty good game, but what coach reiterates is 60 minutes. In football, a lot of crazy things happen. You can't assume that – you know, these guys are extremely skilled and they're great players. So, we just can't take our eye off of what the goal is, and that's to play a great 60 minutes of football against a team that we've always struggled against there. It's a division game on the road early in the season, so it means a lot.”

And Brady acknowledged the idea that head coaches that were once Belichick assistants have found a way to beat their former boss and team over the years.

“Brian's a great coach. So, he's been sitting in these meetings for 15 years too, learning from Coach Belichick. So, he knows what we're trying to do; we know what they're trying to do,” Brady said. “I think we've faced that before over some years when Josh [McDaniels] was in Denver, when Matty P’s [Matt Patricia] in Detroit, Eric Mangini was with the Jets, Romeo [Crennel]. Ultimately, the game comes down to fundamentals and how well we executed the things that we planned for, but they're going to have a plan.”

If things go as planned for the Patriots, it should lead to an easy victory for the more talented, more established team coming off an impressive performance.

But over the years things have so often failed to go as planned in Miami, even for past Patriots teams destined for Super Bowl success.

Heading into this matchup with Flores and a Miami coaching staff littered with other former Patriots assistants, here’s a six-pack of areas to keep an eye on in this early season division battle.

To AB or not to AB? – That is the question. Antonio Brown signed with the Patriots on Monday. He hit the practice field in New England on Wednesday. He’s clearly already begun to build a relationship with Brady. But given the sexual assault allegations against Brown in a civil lawsuit filed on Tuesday in Florida, the receiver’s status is very much in doubt right up until game time. Even if Brown makes the trip to Miami and is active for the game, it remains to be seen what kind of role he could have in the offense after just a few days of practice and study time. Even in a best-cast scenario in terms of just football, Brown would likely only be available in certain packages for a small number of plays. That’s if the Patriots don’t simply decide to hold him out for another week to let some of the off-field issues and an NFL investigation play out a bit.

Keep in line – New England’s offensive line is likely the biggest non-AB question on the team right now, even if it’s coming off a relatively solid performance in the opener against Pittsburgh. Marcus Cannon suffered a shoulder injury against the Steelers that had him limited in practice all week. If he can’t go, it could lead to someone like newcomer Korey Cunningham having to fill in. That would be in addition to Isaiah Wynn making just his second career start at left tackle and Ted Karras heading into his second start of the year filling the void at center with captain David Andrews lost for the season due to reported blood clots in his lungs. Karras’ shotgun snaps were a bit shaky in the opener, something he knows he has to work on. Upset losses often include opponents getting pressure on Brady, so it’s up to Dante Scarnecchia’s group – whoever that is – to avoid wilting in the heat.

Weather the weather – It’s going to be hot. It’s going to be humid. There may be rain or even a thunderstorm. Could be breezy. As good as Belichick’s teams have been over the years in almost all weather, plenty of players admit that the conditions are an issue in Miami. It’s even worse during these early-season trips south. New England had a pretty warm practice on Wednesday, but nothing like what it will face on Sunday. On paper there is no way the Ryan Fitzpatrick-led Dolphins should be in line to upset the Patriots. But the game is played on grass in warm conditions that favor the home squad. It’s been a problem in the past. It is what it is.

Tune up the Sony – It didn’t matter in the opener, but Sony Michel’s ground game never got anything going against Pittsburgh. The second-year back finished with 15 carries for 14 yards. Sure Rex Burkhead and James White were more productive, but the Patriots clearly would like to see Michel get some production on the ground against a Miami run defense that allowed 265 yards rushing and a 5.8-yard average against Baltimore in Week 1. New England probably doesn’t need to run the ball with Michel to win this matchup, but seeing him and the new-look line find some success on the ground would be a good sign for future weeks.

Safe D – The Dolphins don’t have a lot on offense that will scare a defense. New England did an impressive job against a much more talented Steelers unit last Sunday. This is a week where solid, simple defense should be enough. Controlled pass rush to keep Fitzpatrick in the pocket should limit the journeyman veteran’s “Fitz-magic” plays. New England’s front should be able to hold Kenyan Drake and company in check. The Patriots defense is good. It’s healthy. It’s deep. It’s versatile. It doesn’t need to take any risks or do anything overly exotic in terms of scheme. Play solid defense, tackle and avoid big plays and it should be more than enough in this matchup.

Prediction – Could the Brown situation be a distraction? Could his arrival disrupt an offense that was pretty darn impressive without him in Week 1? Could New England’s history in Miami or against former Belichick assistants conjure up a stunning result? Maybe any one or all of these questions could come up in the Dolphins’ favor. But reason and reality say that the Patriots are the far better team and should be able to control this game from start to finish. We don’t expect the unexpected, so we’re going to go with the Patriots to be able to control the game on both sides of the ball. The depth of the team should allow for substituting liberally if the heat is indeed an issue. Avoid big mistakes and big plays allowed and the rest should take care of itself. That’s what we’re projecting here for a Patriots 31-10 win in which Belichick might even take it easy on his former trusted assistant Flores to keep the score from getting out of hand.