Patriots

Dolphins have been a thorn the past two decades, but Patriots will play the spoiler on Sunday

The Kenyan Drake play in 2018 and last year's mind-numbing, regular-season finale loss at home come to mind.

Wilfredo Lee
Bill Belichick has not faced Tua Tagovailoa, but Belichick is 25-5 against rookie quarterbacks as coach of the Patriots.

Welcome to Season 9, Episode 14 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.

The Patriots have endured so many ups and downs this season it would be understandable to forget the hopeful beginnings. With new quarterback Cam Newton rushing for 75 of the Patriots’ 217 yards on the ground, they began the post-Tom Brady era with a 21-11 victory over the Dolphins. The style of offense didn’t look especially familiar. But the outcome sure did.

A dozen games and all of those ups and downs later, and, well, circumstances have changed. The Dolphins, led by former Patriots assistant Brian Flores, are 8-5 and positioned for a playoff berth in just his second season. It’s a remarkable turnaround from his head coaching beginnings just a season ago, when the Dolphins started 0-7.

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The Patriots, meanwhile, are clinging to the slimmest of postseason hopes, with their chances of earning a wild-card berth falling between 2 and 4 percent, depending upon where you look. Their string of 11 straight AFC East titles ended last week when the Bills clinched the division. If they miss the playoffs, it will be the first time since 2008, when Matt Cassel took the reins from an injured Brady halfway through the first quarter of the first game of the season. If that feels like a long time ago, it’s because it was.

Yes, it’s an unfamiliar spot, and for the first time since the early ’90s, the Patriots have the most unsettled QB spot in the division. But there’s still that slim playoff hope, still a chance to finish at .500, and still no chance of Bill Belichick ever tanking. The Patriots are playing for something. Just not nearly as much as we’re used to.

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Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this one started …

Three players I’ll be watching

Xavien Howard: You never really know how or who a team will draft with a given selection. But it’s apparent Patriots at least lost a shot at an excellent player when Roger Goodell and his briefcase-toting toadies docked the Patriots their first-round pick in the 2016 draft as part of their ridiculously severe punishment for Deflategate. The Patriots would have had the No. 29 pick in that draft. Among the players to go in that range were TE Hunter Henry (No. 35, Chargers) LB Myles Jack (No. 36, Jaguars), DT Chris Jones (No. 37, Chiefs), Howard (No. 38, Dolphins), WR Sterling Shepard (No. 40, Giants), RB Derrick Henry (No. 45, Titans), and WR Michael Thomas (No. 47, Saints). That group has combined for six Pro Bowl appearances, with more to come this year. Would they have taken one of those players? We’ll never know, but ESPN’s Mike Reiss did write in July 2017 that he thought Shepard (who had visited the Patriots) or defensive lineman Vernon Butler (No. 30, Panthers) might have been the choice. It’s not quite a lament to the degree of taking Chris Canty over Sam Madison in ’97, but I do wonder whether the ball-hawking Howard, who has been the best cornerback in the league this season (9 interceptions, including one in each of the last five games, on 76 targets), would have been on their radar. They did have a need at cornerback, and ended up spending their second-round pick on one, the regrettable Cyrus Jones selection.

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Sony Michel: The Patriots must move the ball on the ground against the Dolphins’ 22d-ranked rush defense (120.2 yards per game). Damien Harris, the Patriots’ top rusher with 691 yards and a 5.0 yards per carry average, would have been their best chance to do that. But in somewhat of a surprise, he was ruled out Saturday with an ankle injury. That opens the door for the supplanted Sony Michel to provide a reminder that he’s been more productive than he sometimes gets credit for. Michel ran nine times for 117 yards in the Week 3 win over the Raiders, but suffered a quad injury that landed him on injured reserve. He’s seen limited action since returning in Week 12, carrying a total of 17 times for 57 yards. Of note: Harris missed the opener against the Dolphins, with J.J. Taylor generating some buzz with 28 yards on four carries.

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Jake Bailey: I’m not sure there’s a better way to sum up the Patriots’ underwhelming performance against the Rams than to acknowledge that Bailey’s punting — and the exceptional coverage by the likes of Justin Bethel — was the most enjoyable part of the game. Bailey had an exceptional game, punting six times for a 51.7 average, including a career-long 71-yarder. Bailey lead the NFL in net yardage (46.1, well ahead of the best average in Patriots’ history, Zoltan Mesko’s 41.5 in 2011), has placed 23 of his 40 punts inside the 20, and has allowed just 46 return yards all season. He’s a player you don’t really want to see, but is often great when we do.

Grievance of the week

The Dolphins have made the playoffs just four times (2000, ’01, ’08, ’16) since Bill Belichick took over as the coach of the Patriots before the 2000 season. They haven’t won a playoff game since the 2000 wild-card round, when Jay Fiedler and friends beat Peyton Manning’s Colts, 23-17.

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Yet the Dolphins have managed to be a nuisance to the Patriots during the dynasty, beating them 15 times in that stretch.

Some of those Miami wins were downright bizarre (the Kenyan Drake lateral game two years ago). Others were damaging (the Dolphins’ 27-24 win in the ’19 regular-season finale ruined the Patriots’ plans to secure a first-round bye).

But the grievance is not that the Dolphins have beaten the Patriots more often than you’d think given the teams’ status the last two decades. It’s that their historical sanctimony always remained intact.

Don Shula, surely threatened by Belichick’s pursuit of his all-time wins record, referred to the Patriots coach as “Belicheat” during a 2015 interview. Those who knew Shula said it was because he was a strict rule follower who couldn’t bear “cheating.”

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That would be fine, except that Shula, per the terrifically snarky website yourteamcheats.com, had a long history himself of — well, let’s put it this way — interpreting the rules a certain way depending on how they benefited his team.

Before a 1983 playoff game with the high-powered Jets (no, really, they were high-powered), he refused to allow a tarp on the field. In an ’86 game against the Eagles, he sent as many as 15 players into the huddle before having the stragglers leave at the last possible second to confuse the defense.

Even Shula’s hiring in 1970 was shady. Dolphins owner Joe Robbie tampered with Shula — then the Colts coach — in 1969, getting him to sign a contract to come to Miami when he was still in charge in Baltimore. The eventual punishment from the NFL? The Dolphins had to send their 1971 first-round pick to the Colts. Huh.

Key matchup

Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa vs. Patriots coach Bill Belichick

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I’ll admit to some reluctance about making Belichick part of the matchup for a second straight week. I’d much prefer it be about the individual player battles on the field.

But it’s impossible to look at this game and come away with the feeling that the outcome is going to come down to anything other than how Tagovailoa fares against a coach that habitually devours rookie quarterbacks.

Belichick, as colleague Ben Volin pointed out earlier this week, is 25-5 against rookie quarterbacks since taking over as Patriots coach. The last rookie QB to prevail against Belichick was the Jets’ Geno Smith in October 2013, which leads to two thoughts: That’s a long time ago. And: how the heck did Geno Smith beat the Patriots?

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While Belichick surely had some intelligence on Tagovailoa well before this season because of his friendship with Alabama coach Nick Saban, this is the first time he’s encountered him leading the opposing huddle. In the Patriots’ Week 1 win, veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick started and played poorly, throwing for 191 yards and three interceptions.

Tagovailoa got his first start in Week 8 — a bold and correct decision by Flores — and has performed with predictable inconsistency but much promise, completing 114 of 184 passes for 1,214 yards, 9 touchdowns, and just one interception. (He missed the Week 12 win over the Jets with a thumb injury.)

Tagovailoa is coming off his most impressive performance, a 33-27 loss to the Chiefs in which he threw for a career-best 316 yards and impressed a certain quarterback on the other side. “It’s special,” said Patrick Mahomes, “the mind-set and demeanor he has on that football field.”

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He may be poised, and precision is among his passing talents, but Belichick is going to throw things at him that he’s never seen before. He may be more ready for this than most rookie QBs. But we said the same thing about Justin Herbert two weeks ago.

Prediction

Or, I still say Bill Parcells shouldn’t have given Irving Fryar to the Dolphins

After the Rams stumped the Patriots last Thursday, Belichick greeted Rams coach Sean McVay after the game with the kind of respect that all young coaches must dream about when they are cooking up their game plans to face the Patriots. “Great job,” said Belichick. “You [expletive] killed us. You had a great plan.”

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I mention that only because I hope Belichick treats Flores with the same respect, win or lose, on Sunday. He’s done a phenomenal job with the Dolphins, and while the coach of the year landscape is full of worthy options, Flores should be considered in the mix for that award.

But he won’t have a shot at winning it if his team can’t beat the Patriots Sunday. And I don’t think they will. This new world order — let alone the order in the AFC East — is nothing Belichick intends to get used to. But there is no doubt that on some level he relishes the opportunity to play spoiler against one of his former understudies.

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Belichick has had extra time to prepare for Tagovailoa. The Dolphins have taken some hits on offense — tight end Mike Gesicki and receiver DeVante Parker are both dealing with injuries, as is stalwart linebacker Kyle Van Noy.

The Patriots haven’t forgotten the loss to end the ’19 regular season. They don’t want to make a habit of playing spoiler. But they’ll be happy to be one Sunday. Patriots 23, Dolphins 20.

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