The Patriots begin the 2021 NFL season as just another team in the AFC East after years of winning this division. First up is a home tilt with the Dolphins on Sunday afternoon. Last year, the two teams split their meetings with the home teams winning each time. New England won the first round, 21-11 in Week 1 with Miami drawing even, 22-12, in South Florida in mid-December. These longtime division rivals have split the season series four straight years with the home team dominating the proceedings. To that point, the Dolphins have lost 11 of their last 12 games played in Foxboro.
Miami went 10-6 in 2020 despite playing yo-yo with the quarterback position between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tua Tagovailoa. Fitzpatrick had won three of his last four starts leading into the team's Week 7 bye when head coach Brian Flores announced that Tagovailoa would become the starter. The Dolphins responded well, winning five of six, while the two signal-callers continued to rotate in. A blowout loss at Buffalo in the season finale kept Miami out of the playoffs, and then Fitzpatrick departed for Washington in free agency this offseason. Even though the Dolphins have long been connected as a potential landing spot for Deshaun Watson, Flores has stated publicly on more than one occasion that Tagovailoa is the starter. The former Alabama standout and fifth player taken in the 2019 draft now needs to deliver, especially with Fitzpatrick no longer around as a safety blanket for him (or the coaching staff). Defensively, Miami was a top-10 unit behind a strong secondary with one of the best cornerback duos in the league.
New England's problems began before the 2020 season even started as numerous key players, especially on defense, opted out due to COVID-19 concerns. You could tell the difference, as the Patriots limped out to a 2-5 start. There was a brief pulse when they moved to 6-6, but the team scored just 52 points over their last four contests with three of those being losses. An offseason spending spree in free agency has brought in plenty of new faces on both sides of the ball, but the biggest change is under center where Cam Newton was released and rookie Mac Jones takes over.
Miami at New England
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept 12 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: New England -2.5
Three Things to Watch
This is the spot in my previews where I'd normally point out scheduling spots and anything that could affect either team on the field, but opening up with a divisional opponent will have both team's full attention. Miami hosts Buffalo in Week 2 while the Patriots get a road game against the Jets. The one thing I'll point out is that Bill Belichick has had a lot of the offseason to study Tagovailoa and this Dolphins team, and usually that results in bad things for the opponent.
2. Crimson Tide influence
Mac Jones is under center for the home team after a strong training camp and preseason. He went 36-for-52 for 389 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions in the preseason. Belichick saw something in the signal-caller from Alabama, who essentially played in an NFL system in college with talent all over the place. We'll see if it translates to an NFL field where the defenses are a lot better. He also has an underwhelming set of WRs to throw to although Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith are an impressive pair of TEs, if healthy. On the other side is Tagovailoa, whom Jones backed up in 2019 before the former injured his hip. Tagovailoa went 24-for-34 for 282 yards in the preseason with a touchdown and a pick. Last year, the southpaw went 20-for-26 for 145 yards in the Week 15 home win over the Patriots with a pair of rushing touchdowns.
Even beyond the quarterbacks, there will be plenty of former Alabama players involved who played with Tagovailoa and/or Jones. The Patriots will call on running back Damien Harris, defensive tackle Christian Barmore, and veteran linebacker Dont'a Hightower. Meanwhile, Tagovailoa's top target could be sixth overall draft pick Jaylen Waddle, and Raekwon Davis will start on the defensive interior.
3. Is the mystique gone?
The Patriots went 5-3 at home last season, which is one fewer loss than they had in the previous three seasons combined. Divisional games used to be really easy for New England — teams knew they'd struggle in Foxboro before they even got there. After 2020, we'll see if teams look at the Patriots differently and if the aura of invincibility is gone from this team. As mentioned earlier, New England has been a tough place for Miami to play, but this game (like last season) won't be in frigid temperatures.
There are so many uncertainties entering this game. Which former Alabama quarterback will shine, as both are young and inexperienced on the pro level? How much will Harris stabilize the Patriots' ground game with Newton and Sony Michel no longer around? In past years, I have taken the Patriots in games like this, and in Week 1 I will do so again. There's a comfort knowing that Belichick is on the sidelines and he'll scheme up a good game plan against Tua and Dolphins. Give me New England at home.
Prediction: Patriots 21, Dolphins 17
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.