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Welcome to Season 10, Episode 17 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
Oh, this one is going to get weird. These late-season Patriots-Dolphins matchups almost always do, no matter the stakes.
Especially when Miami is the backdrop.
In Bill Belichick’s 22 seasons as coach, the Patriots are 10-11 in December/January games with the Dolphins. In games at Miami, it’s almost implausibly worse given the Patriots’ overall consistent excellence during that span and their habit of playing their best football late in the season: The Patriots are 2-8 against the Dolphins from Dec. 1 forward since 2000.
Some of the weirdest games in this Patriots era have occurred in Miami during the last quarter of the season. Some had major consequences, and some were just a minor pothole on the road to a duck boat parade. A sampling:
Week 15, 2004: Dolphins 29, Patriots 28. The Patriots entered 12-1 and had clinched the AFC East. The Dolphins were 2-11 and had the worst record in the AFC. But A.J. Feeley found Derrius Thompson on a fourth-down heave for a go-ahead 21-yard touchdown with 1 minute 23 seconds left, and the Dolphins pulled off the upset of the season against a team that was about to win its third Super Bowl in four seasons.
Week 17, 2005: Dolphins 28, Patriots 26. The Patriots rested several starters, not so covertly positioning themselves to play the unthreatening Jaguars in the wild-card round. Matt Cassel threw a touchdown pass to Benjamin Watson at the end of regulation to pull the Patriots within 2, but fired a 2-point conversion attempt incomplete. This might be the least-disappointing loss of Belichick’s Patriots career.
Week 17, 2015: Dolphins 20, Patriots 10. This one was probably the most puzzling strategic approach of Belichick’s Patriots career. This game had real stakes — the Patriots had a chance at the No. 1 seed — but Belichick and his staff took all sorts of half-measures, resting some starters, starting Tom Brady but trying to protect him by running on 16 of the first 18 plays. The Patriots ended up having to play Peyton Manning and the Broncos on the road in the AFC Championship game, losing, 20-18, in one of the more valiant performances in defeat in Brady’s career.
Week 14, 2018: Dolphins 34, Patriots 33. Ah, yes, the ol’ pass and double-lateral that culminated with Kenyan Drake outracing Patriots free safety [checks notes] Rob Gronkowski to the corner of the end zone on the final play. The prevent defense did not prevent.
So, yes, history suggests this one could get wonky in some way. While Dolphins coach Brian Flores, the one branch of the Belichick coaching tree who doesn’t seem to have hit his head on all the other branches, would love to improve his record against his former boss to 4-2, there are no real stakes for the eliminated Dolphins other than pride.
There are football stakes for the Patriots, and they should have a pretty good read on what they are by the time the late-afternoon game kicks off. Three of the teams ahead of them in the AFC playoff standings (Chiefs, who play Saturday night, Bengals, and Titans) play before them this weekend.
The Patriots could still win the AFC East if they win and the Bills lose to the Jets in a game played concurrently to Patriots-Dolphins, but since when has counting on the Jets ever brought anyone joy?
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this one started …
Rhamondre Stevenson: Damien Harris, who has been battling a hamstring injury since the first Bills game, seems better off resting Sunday than trying to avenge the fumble that helped cost the Patriots the season opener. That probably means a large workload for Stevenson — and a chance at avenging his own miscue. Remember, he also fumbled in the loss to the Dolphins, and it got him put into Stevan Ridley Fumblers’ Purgatory for a few weeks by Belichick. Stevenson played just five snaps in the opener, then didn’t get another until Week 5 against the Texans, when he ran for 23 yards on 11 carries. Stevenson has since emerged as part of a dynamic, hard-running 1-2 punch with Harris, posting his first 100-yard game in the rout of the Browns in Week 10, grinding out 78 crucial yards in the Week 13 win in the wind at Buffalo, and running 19 times for 107 yards and two touchdowns in his best performance yet last Sunday against the Jaguars. Stevenson enters the regular-season finale with 572 rushing yards. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Stevenson eclipses the 700-yard mark for the season on Sunday against Miami’s 11th-ranked run defense (108.3 yards per game).
Jakobi Meyers: Back in Week 1, the receiver didn’t put up huge numbers (six catches, 49 yards) but just about every play he made mattered, and he immediately established himself as someone rookie quarterback Mac Jones could lean on. Four of Meyers’s catches in the opener resulted in third-down conversions, including a 22-yarder on third and 6 play when the Dolphins sent the house at Jones. Meyers has been Mr. Reliable for Jones ever since. Other than the Buffalo outlier when the Patriots passed just three times, Meyers has had at least four targets in every game, with two games of 12 targets (Buccaneers, Colts) and one of 14 (Saints). He had one catch for 8 yards against the Panthers, but in every other game he’s had at least four receptions, with a high of nine against the Saints. He doesn’t have a 100-yard game to his credit, but he has two of at least 94 yards, and because of that week-to-week steadiness, he’s almost certain to end the season with more than 80 catches and 800 yards. Consider this a nod of appreciation to a player who is making himself into a quintessential smart, reliable Patriot.
Jaylen Waddle: The Patriots found out what this talented receiver from Alabama was about early. The rest of the league has since. Waddle had four catches for 61 yards against the Patriots in his NFL debut, including a 17-yarder on the first play from scrimmage, a 36-yarder that helped set up a field goal, and a 3-yard TD reception that put the Dolphins ahead to start the second half. That game was the first scene of an exceptional rookie year — his next catch will be his 100th, and he needs 12 yards to reach 1,000. This past week, he was named the Dan Marino Most Valuable Player. Think the award for that is a pair of Isotoner gloves?
A minor grievance, I know, but did anyone else groan Monday when the NFL announced it was moving this game from 1 to 4:25 p.m.? I’d take the 1 p.m. start for everything if I could, including the Super Bowl, all World Series games, and heck, even “Saturday Night Live.”
Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa vs. Patriots pass defense
Here’s a question: How would you rate the future prospects of the three current NFL quarterbacks who were teammates on Alabama’s 2017 national championship team?
Without much hesitation, I’d order them this way: Jones, Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa. And there’s a decent-sized gap between them, with Jones having the most job security and the best situation, Hurts gradually winning over the skeptics in Philadelphia, and Tagovailoa having a tenuous grip on his Quarterback of the Future status with the Dolphins just 22 games into his career.
Tagovailoa was actually the highest pick of the three, going No. 5 overall to the Dolphins in the 2020 draft, one pick before the Chargers took Justin Herbert, a decision that is looking regrettable. Tagovailoa hasn’t been a bust, but his limitations regarding his arm strength have become obvious. He’s averaging 7.0 yards per attempt, 19th in the NFL, and just 10.3 yards per completion, which is tied with Jaguars rookie Trevor Lawrence for 27th.
Tagovailoa, who has thrown for 2,544 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, has had some modest success operating the run-pass option, and he’s actually 2-0 against the Patriots as a starter. In Week 14 last season, he was an adequate 20 for 26 for 145 yards with an interception in the Dolphins’ 22-12 win. In the Dolphins’ 17-16 win to open this season, he was a less-efficient 16 of 27 for 202 yards, with a touchdown and a pick.
Overall, the Dolphins’ passing game rates in the mediocre middle, 16th in the NFL at 221.8 yards per game. Tagovailoa has been mistake-prone lately, with four interceptions and five fumbles (one lost) in the last three games. Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson picked him off in Week 14 last year. The opportunity should come Sunday for Jackson, who has nine interceptions this season for the Patriots’ fourth-ranked pass defense (192.4 yards per game) , to continue his ballhawking ways.
It’s been 17 weeks since the Patriots lost to the Dolphins, but that opening defeat still follows them to some degree.
Had they won that game — and presuming everything afterward occurred in the way and order that it did — they would be entering this weekend with an 11-5 record (tied with the Titans and Chiefs) and holding the inside track at the No. 1 seed.
Instead, they’re almost certainly going to end up as a wild-card team. One loss can make such a difference, and the first one of the season lingers.
The Patriots were sloppy that entire game, fumbling four times (losing two), going 1 for 4 in the red zone, and committing eight penalties. The defense also failed to pick up the offense and get a stop after Harris’s miscue.
It’s important Sunday that the Patriots show that they have permanently minimized the physical and mental mistakes that plagued them in the opener, and at assorted other times this season, including against the Bills just two weeks ago.
There won’t be many surprises. The Patriots know the Dolphins will blitz Jones. The Dolphins know the Patriots will try to establish the run. The Patriots’ defense should have little trouble containing the Dolphins’ offense, which averages just 85.8 rushing yards per game. They know that Tagovailoa will depend on Waddle and unheralded tight end Mike Gesicki in a limited passing game.
The Patriots don’t necessarily need to avenge their Week 1 loss. They are, after all, the team that will have at least one more game after Sunday. But they would be wise to play with more discipline than they did that day. The playoffs beckon, and undisciplined teams don’t get to stay very long. Patriots 24, Dolphins 20.
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