Patriots

Checking in with the Patriots’ first 4 opponents and how they stack up against them

The Patriots start the season with games against the Dolphins, Jets, Saints, and Buccaneers.

Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski return to Foxborough in Week 4. AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio

The NFL regular season is almost here, but the wait is a little bit longer this year.

With the NFL taking a game off the preseason schedule, teams now have two weeks between their final preseason game and their first regular-season game. Now that their “off” week is behind them, the Patriots gear up for their Week 1 matchup against the Dolphins a week from Sunday.

The Patriots follow up their opener with another game against a divisional rival in Week 2, heading to the Meadowlands to face the Jets. They come home for Weeks 3 and 4, hosting the Saints and Buccaneers, respectively, with the Week 4 matchup bringing Tom Brady back to Foxborough.

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Here’s how the Patriots’ first four opponents stack up entering the regular season.

Miami Dolphins

2020 record: 11-5

Preseason record: 2-1

Notable additions: WR Will Fuller (suspended Week 1), WR Jaylen Waddle, LB Jaelan Phillips, CB Justin Coleman, QB Jacoby Brissett, RB Malcolm Brown

Notable departures: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, LB Kyle Van Noy, DE Shaq Lawson, C Ted Karras, RB Matt Breida

Head coach Brian Flores enters Year 3 in Miami after a strong Year 2. The Dolphins went 11-5 last season, but had Ryan Fitzpatrick starting at quarterback in seven of those games and played in two more.

With Fitzpatrick gone, all eyes are on second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. In his rookie season, Tagovailoa threw for 1,814 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions over nine games. He had some high moments, such as throwing for 248 yards in a road win over the Cardinals, and low moments, such as getting replaced by Fitzpatrick in two games and throwing three interceptions in a must-win Week 17 game against the Bills.

Tagovailoa played in two games this preseason, throwing for 282 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

The Dolphins’ offense does have some new faces, especially at receiver. They signed veteran Will Fuller to a one-year deal. Fuller had career highs across the board in 2020, finishing with 53 receptions for 879 yards and eight touchdowns. The Patriots won’t see him in Week 1 though because Fuller’s finishing a six-game PED suspension.

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Their other big receiver addition was Jaylen Waddle, who they drafted with the No. 6 overall pick. Tagovailoa was teammates with Waddle at Alabama, where the two won a national championship.

Veterans DeVante Parker and Mike Gesicki return, too. Parker, a receiver, and Gesicki, a tight end, each had over 700 receiving yards in 2020 and still figure to be productive in 2021.

On defense, the Dolphins’ biggest loss was linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who they released. It appeared they might also lose All-Pro corner Xavien Howard after he requested a trade, but the two sides agreed to a contract restructure instead.

To replace Van Noy, the Dolphins drafted linebacker Jaelan Phillips, who had eight sacks in college last year.

Miami’s defensive unit was their biggest strength in 2020, ranking sixth in points allowed last season. With most of their defense back, the Dolphins figure to have a strong defense again.

New York Jets

2020 record: 1-15

Preseason record: 2-0-1

Notable additions: Head coach Robert Saleh, QB Zach Wilson, WR Corey Davis, WR Keelan Cole, DE Carl Lawson (out for season), G Alijah-Vera Tucker, WR Elijah Moore, RB Michael Carter

Notable departures: Head coach Adam Gase, QB Sam Darnold, WR Breshard Perriman, RB Frank Gore

After a pitiful 2020, the Jets fired head coach Adam Gase and revamped their offense.

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To replace Gase, New York hired San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. In his four seasons with the 49ers, Saleh’s defensive units were widely regarded as one of the best in football, helping San Francisco reach the Super Bowl in 2019.

The Jets also got rid of quarterback Sam Darnold, trading him to the Panthers for draft picks. With Darnold gone, the Jets drafted BYU quarterback Zach Wilson with the No. 2 overall pick. Along with Mac Jones, Wilson was seen as one of the best rookie quarterbacks during the preseason. Over two games, he threw for 191 yards and two touchdowns.

New York surrounded its rookie quarterback with some help. The Jets signed veteran receivers Corey Davis and Keelan Cole, who combined for 1,626 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns last season. They also drafted Elijah Moore with their second-round pick.

The Jets used their other two picks in the first four rounds on offensive talent. They traded up in the first round to select USC guard Alijah-Vera Tucker and selected UNC running back Michael Carter in the fourth round.

New York’s 24th-ranked defense from last season largely remains the same, with no major movement happening on that side of the ball.

Even with all of the changes on offense, the Jets are still projected to be one of the worst teams in the NFL in 2021, with their over/under set at six wins.

New Orleans Saints

2020 record: 12-4, lost to the Buccaneers in the NFC Divisional Round

Preseason record: 1-1 (Week 3 game against the Cardinals canceled due to Hurricane Ida)

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Notable additions: TE Nick Vannett

Notable departures: QB Drew Brees, DE Trey Hendrickson, WR Emmanuel Sanders, DT Malcolm Brown, CB Janoris Jenkins

For the first time since 2005, the Saints will start someone other than Drew Brees at quarterback for Week 1. Brees called it a career over the offseason, making way for Jameis Winston to be the team’s new starting quarterback.

The last time we saw Winston as a starter, he threw 33 touchdowns but also had 30 interceptions with the Buccaneers in 2019. Winston looked impressive in the preseason, though, especially against the Jaguars. In that game, he completed 9-of-10 passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns.

Brees wasn’t the only veteran the Saints said goodbye to. Trey Hendrickson, Emmanuel Sanders, Malcolm Brown, and Janoris Jenkins left as the Saints either cut them or let them walk as free agents to stay under the cap, making it hard for them to acquire proven veterans in the offseason.

But the Saints still hold much of the talent that led them to the second-best record in the NFC last season. Alvin Kamara expects to be one of the best backs in the league again. They still have playmakers like defensive end Cam Jordan, linebacker Demario Davis, and cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

The Saints’ receiving corps will be weakened to start the season as Michael Thomas is out due to an ankle injury, giving the Patriots a bit of a break there. Second-year receiver Marquez Callaway shined in the preseason, connecting with Winston for two impressive touchdowns.

Despite all of the departures, the Saints still hold a lot of talent and project to at least contend for the playoffs this season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2020 record: 11-5, won Super Bowl LV over the Chiefs

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Preseason record: 1-2

Notable additions: RB Giovani Bernard

Notable departures: None?

The Buccaneers enter the 2021 season in a spot the Patriots were used to over the last 20 years: defending champs with a great chance to repeat. Oh, and Tom Brady is their quarterback.

There’s one big difference though between this Buccaneers team and every other team coming off a Super Bowl win. Tampa returns every single starter from its Super Bowl LV win over the Chiefs, which is the first time that’s ever happened in NFL history.

With the Buccaneers bringing everyone back, there’s not much that’s new about them. Brady, now 44, looked as sharp as ever in the Buccaneers’ Week 3 preseason game against the Texans. He completed 11-of-14 passes for 154 yards with a touchdown in that game.

As time passed last season, the Buccaneers got better and better, winning their last four regular-season games before winning all four playoff games. Brady got better, too, finishing the season with 4,633 passing yards and 40 touchdowns as he developed connections with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.

Brady’s still got Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown, who signed with the Buccaneers midseason in 2020. Tight end O.J. Howard returns after missing much of last season due to a torn Achilles.

On defense, the Buccaneers have several players who could be among the best at their positions. Defensive tackle Vita Vea along with linebackers Shaq Barrett, Lavonte David, and Devin White all figure to be potential Pro Bowlers in 2021.

So, with all of that talent returning to a Super Bowl-winning team, it makes sense that the Buccaneers are the favorites to win again.

Patriots’ outlook

Starting off with three home games in four weeks is obviously good news for the start of the Mac Jones era. But the opponents aren’t the easiest.

The Patriots open as 2.5-point favorites against the Dolphins in Week 1. They split their matchups against the Dolphins last season, winning in Week 1 and losing in Week 15. Of course, the Patriots’ roster is much different from last year, which makes you wonder how much we can take away from those games and apply it to this year. A Week 1 win would obviously be beneficial, especially against a division opponent who figures to be in the playoff hunt.

The Week 2 matchup against the Jets should be one of the Patriots’ easiest matchups of the season. New York’s roster is a bit different from last season, but with a rookie quarterback at the helm and a freshman head coach in charge, the Patriots should still get the win with their revamped defense.

Things get a bit trickier for the Patriots in Week 3. The Saints might be one of the biggest unknowns entering the season. However, they’ve been a playoff team the last four seasons and with the talent they retained, they should still be in the mix to make five straight seasons. Defeating playoff-caliber teams isn’t easy, especially with a rookie quarterback.

Finally, the Week 4 matchup is probably the biggest regular-season game in Patriots history. Tom Brady returns to Foxborough coming off his Super Bowl title with a stacked roster around him. With the tremendous talent the Buccaneers have at receiver, this is likely the game the Patriots will miss corner Stephon Gilmore the most.

Looking at the first four games, the Patriots should probably walk away with a couple of wins.

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