Divisional matchups always seem to carry a heightened level of significance — even more so when they kick off a season — and that's exactly what is in store for the Miami Dolphins when they travel to Foxborough to take on the New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon. Dolphins head coach Brian Flores — who spent 15 seasons in various positions with New England — will look to get his team off to a 1-0 start, which Miami has done five times in the last seven seasons, while New England has won its season opener in all but two of the last 16 seasons.
Miami lost its first seven games of 2019 by an average of 23 points before winning consecutive games against the New York Jets and Indianapolis. The Dolphins proceeded to lose four of their next five, but they closed with two wins against Cincinnati and New England to finish 5-11. Many thought that a five-win season would hamper the team's draft plans, but with the 5th overall pick, the Dolphins were able to draft what they hope to be their quarterback of the future in Tua Tagovailoa.
On the other hand, New England started off the 2019 campaign on a tear, opening with eight straight wins by an average of nearly 24 points per game. The first loss came on the road in a Sunday night matchup in Baltimore, but the Patriots bounced back with wins in four of their next six before dropping the finale to Miami and then suffering an early exit in the wild-card round of the playoffs against Tennessee.
Between Miami and New England's meeting to close the 2019 regular season and their meeting to open the 2020 regular season on Sunday, quite a bit has changed for both teams. In addition to Tom Brady's relocation to Tampa Bay, the Patriots lost linebacker Jamie Collins Sr. and defensive tackle Danny Shelton to the Lions, with center Ted Karras and linebacker Kyle Van Noy staying within the division and signing with Miami. Miami also signed cornerback Byron Jones to a five-year, $82.5 million deal, while also adding defensive ends Emmanuel Ogbah and Shaq Lawson on multi-year deals.
Miami at New England
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 13 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. New face, same winning ways?
Cam Newton's arrival in New England not only marks the start of a new era for the Patriots, but it also signals the likely fall of some incredible streaks. Assuming Newton starts on Sunday against Miami, he will be the first quarterback not drafted by New England to start a game for the team since Scott Secules (drafted by the Cowboys in 1988) went 0-4 in four starts for the Patriots in 1993. Similarly, he would become the first Patriots signal-caller to win a game in New England after not being drafted by the team since Hugh Millen (drafted by the Rams in 1986) did so in 1991.
Looking back at the last two-plus decades, the Patriots have enjoyed extraordinary levels of success with their home-grown quarterbacks. Since the 1994 season — the first in which Drew Bledsoe started all 16 games — the Patriots are 291-125 (.700 win percentage), averaging more than 11 wins per season. Over that span, New England amassed 19 division titles and 10 conference titles with six Super Bowls.
Newton has gone 68-55-1 with Carolina since taking over as their starting quarterback in 2011, completing 60 percent of his passes and throwing 182 touchdowns against 108 interceptions with 58 more scores on the ground. Over the last seven full seasons that Newton has started for Carolina, he's alternated losing seasons with winning seasons. The 2015 MVP will aim to bring a greater level of consistency to his new home, with an opportunity to start the season off right against a division foe.
2. Who emerges as a pass-catching threat for Miami?
In the opening week of his second season with Miami, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will be up against arguably the league's best defense of 2019. Spearheaded by Defensive Player of the Year cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the Patriots led the NFL in fewest points allowed and fewest yards allowed last season.
Gilmore will likely be tasked with lining up against Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker, who played in all 16 games and set career highs across the board in receptions (72), yards (1,202), and touchdowns (nine). Parker's tough matchup opens the door for Miami's other pass-catching options — including tight end Mike Gesicki and wide receiver Preston Williams — to make an impact.
Gesicki finished second on the team in receiving with 51 catches for 570 yards and five touchdowns, while Williams was right behind him with 32 catches for 428 yards and three touchdowns in eight games as a rookie. Gesicki tied for the league lead in end zone targets among tight ends, and with Parker and Williams both on the mend from injuries entering Week 1, look for Fitzpatrick to favor his tight end often when the Dolphins get into the red zone.
3. Rushing yards, anyone?
As a team in 2019, Miami rushed for a total of 1,156 yards. As a team. No single player eclipsed 250 yards rushing, let alone 500. And the man atop the rushing leaderboard for the Dolphins? That would be FitzMagic himself, the 37-year-old Fitzpatrick, with a grand total of 243 yards rushing. Immediately after Fitzpatrick were Mark Walton (201 yards) and Kenyan Drake (174) — neither of whom played even half a season for Miami — with the former now a free agent and the latter a member of the Arizona Cardinals after a midseason trade.
All that to say, Miami will need to find some semblance of a rushing attack this season in order to take some pressure off Fitzpatrick — and, to whatever extent he plays in 2020, Tagovailoa. During the offseason, Miami signed Jordan Howard and traded for Matt Breida with the aspiration that one of them, not Fitzpatrick, will lead the team in rushing in 2020.
The duo brings both speed and power to the table, a combination that should suit Flores and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey very nicely. In 13 games for San Francisco last season, Breida totaled 623 yards rushing — with 19 catches for another 120 yards — and two total touchdowns. Meanwhile, Howard rushed for 525 yards (4.4 yards per carry) and six touchdowns in 10 games for Philadelphia last season.
While the presence of both suggests that there likely won't be a single workhorse back but rather a situational blend of the two, their usage in Week 1 ought to provide some insight into how Flores and Co. will deploy their new additions going forward. That being said, any respectable level of productivity from Dolphins running backs this season would be a step in the right direction.
Starting the 2020 season with a divisional game magnifies the importance of opening with a win and picking up some early momentum. The Dolphins won the 2019 regular-season finale in Foxborough, but they haven't won consecutive games against New England since winning in Week 15 of 2013 and Week 1 of 2014.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Dolphins 17
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.