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Welcome to Season 11, Episode 16 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup …
Quick, answer this without looking it up: Who scored the Patriots’ first touchdown this season?
If you remembered that it was Ty Montgomery who rolled into the end zone for the Patriots’ lone score in their 20-7, season-opening loss to the Dolphins, well, congratulations on being Ty Montgomery or a close personal friend. That was his lone game, a knee injury knocking him out for the season.
That tidbit of trivia is a small example of what’s changed for the Patriots over this long and often bizarre season. But flashbacks to the season opener also serve as an annoying reminder of what hasn’t changed as the Patriots and Dolphins prepare to meet in Game 16 with their playoff hopes at stake.
The chief complaint after the opener was the continued ineptitude of the Patriots’ offense, which carried a disjointed preseason showing into the regular season. The Patriots mustered only two decent drives — on the first possession of the season, which abruptly ended with a Mac Jones interception on an alley-oop to DeVante Parker that cornerback Xavien Howard picked off in the end zone, and the first one of the second half, culminating with Montgomery’s touchdown to cut the Dolphins’ lead to 17-7. The offensive line was a mess — Trent Brown whiffed on a block that led to a strip-sack and a touchdown — and we figured that it could only get better.
My friends, it hasn’t gotten better. All these weeks later, the Patriots’ offense is still a mess, with the newest wrinkle involving receivers who run into each other on routes. The Patriots have lost two in a row — a ridiculous Jakobi Meyers lateral leading directly to the loss to the Raiders two weeks ago, and Rhamondre Stevenson’s trying-to-do-too-much fumble in the red zone thwarting an inspired/lucky potential comeback in the Christmas Eve loss to the Bengals.
Yet for all of their faults and follies, they might be entering this must-win game in better shape than the Dolphins, who have lost four in a row and will be without starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who is in concussion protocol and probably shouldn’t play again this season.
The Dolphins will start eight-year veteran Teddy Bridgewater, who will look to extend Miami’s winning streak over the Patriots to five games. The Patriots have fared well against quarterbacks of Bridgewater’s mediocre stature this season. But the Patriots’ chances depend on whether their own offense is competent.
Kick it off, Vizcaino, and let’s get this one started …
Tyreek Hill: The buzz about superstar Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson potentially setting the NFL season records for catches and receiving yards has been getting louder.
Jefferson has 123 receptions with two games to go, 26 shy of the record set by the Saints’ Michael Thomas in 2019. With 1,756 receiving yards, Jefferson should surpass Lions legend Calvin Johnson’s all-time standard of 1,964, set in 2012, and has a real shot at becoming the first receiver with 2,000 yards in a season in NFL history.
I bring this up because as spectacular as Jefferson has been, it must be noted that Hill, in his first year with the Dolphins, is not all that far off his pace. Hill has 113 receptions for 1,632 yards — both career highs already — and 7 touchdowns (one fewer than Jefferson). It’s interesting to see how Hill’s numbers break down, though, because he hasn’t been as consistent as his overall stats suggest.
While he has six games with at least 143 receiving yards, he has eight games where he’s had fewer than 100 yards, and three games where he hasn’t surpassed 47 yards. Hill made his Dolphins debut against the Patriots in Week 1, catching eight passes for 94 yards. The Patriots did keep him out of the end zone, and his biggest play was a 26-yard catch late in the first half in which he outfought cornerback Jack Jones for the ball.
Hill’s presence, the danger of him making a big play at any moment, always lingers over a game, and he’s made life easier for the Dolphins’ No. 2 receiver, Jaylen Waddle, who has had a terrific season in his own right with 67 catches for 1,260 yards and 8 touchdowns, including a crucial 42-yarder in Week 1.
Jonathan Jones has done a competent job of covering Hill going back to the receiver’s Kansas City days, but the Patriots could be perilously thin at cornerback if Jack Jones (knee), Marcus Jones (concussion), and Jalen Mills (groin) cannot play. All three had not practiced this week through Thursday.
Matthew Judon and Josh Uche, who have combined for 27 sacks — 17.5 since Week 9 — could ease the burden on the defensive backfield by putting constant pressure on Bridgewater.
Kendrick Bourne: Check this out. It’s what I wrote about Bourne after the Patriots’ loss to the Dolphins in the season opener: “We’ve got to get to the bottom of what’s going on with Kendrick Bourne. He didn’t play until the fourth quarter, comes in and makes a 41-yard catch, the Patriots’ longest play of the day, and then goes right back to the bench. It’s so bizarre … Burying Bourne is detrimental to what’s best for the Patriots.”
As if we needed another reminder of how poor de facto coordinator Matt Patricia and the Patriots’ offense have been at remedying their issues, we’re still having the same conversation about Bourne 14 games later. He was superb against the Bengals last Saturday when — all together now — he got the chance, catching six passes for 100 yards and a touchdown.
Patricia seems to regard Bourne the same way Tom Brady regarded Joey Galloway, but it’s clear Mac Jones trusts him, he’s a threat to accumulate yards after the catch, and it’s a joke that an offense that is inconsistent on its best days has treated him like he’s the problem rather than a decent part of a potential solution.
Bourne is capable of putting up a second straight strong performance against a Dolphins pass defense that allows 244.7 yards per game (28th in the NFL). Yo, Matt, you want to have a better shot at winning, or at least looking competent? Just. Play. Bourne.
Ja’Whaun Bentley: The Patriots’ ever-improving linebacker should be a factor against a Dolphins running game that, while ranking just 27th in the league in yards per game (95.9), has two reliable backs in Raheem Mostert (791 yards, 4.9 per carry) and Jeff Wilson (275 yards since coming over from the 49ers after Week 8, 5.2 per carry).
But consider this more of an overdue acknowledgment of Bentley’s excellent season. He made 11 tackles against the Bengals, his third straight game with 10 or more, and if he reaches double digits again Sunday, he will become the first Patriot since Jerod Mayo in 2012 to do so for four straight games.
Bentley has a team-leading 106 tackles, two shy of his career high, and has been Mr. Reliable for a run defense that ranks ninth (107.8 yards per game).
When we’re discussing Bill Belichick’s good draft picks over the last half-dozen or so years, getting Bentley in the fifth round in 2018 must now be mentioned.
It doesn’t take much depth of thought to rattle off names of NFL folks who haven’t been great at their jobs this season. Nathaniel Hackett, who couldn’t make it through his rookie season as Broncos coach. Russell Wilson. Most rules analysts on network broadcasts. Matt Patricia, Matt Patricia, and, oh, while we’re at it, Matt Patricia.
But I’m not sure any group has been worse at its jobs than the league’s “ATC spotters,” the people charged with identifying players exhibiting symptoms of a concussion during the heat of the game.
Patriots fans will recall that receiver Nelson Agholor had to do everything other than firing a flare into the sky to get the officials to notice that teammate Parker was struggling after a hit to the head in Week 14 against the Cardinals. That was an egregious miss that made one wonder whether the person in charge had sneaked to the media dining area to get a refill of clam chowder or something when the play happened. Anyone who was present and paying attention had to have noticed Parker’s condition.
And one can’t help but wonder if a spotter could have averted some of the awful head trauma Tagovailoa has endured this season. In Week 3 against the Bills, Tagovailoa took a hit that made him wobble like a punch-drunk boxer. He played the next week against the Bengals and took a shot that left him in a tangled heap, his hands contorting beyond his control. Diagnosed with a concussion, he missed two games.
Then last week, he took a blow that caused his head to bounce off the turf against the Packers in the second quarter. He played in the second half, threw three interceptions, and was diagnosed with another concussion … on Monday. Offensive coordinator Frank Smith said he didn’t suspect Tagovailoa had suffered a concussion, but that he saw some things with the offense that made him go “huh.”
It’s scary when the number of concussions a player has suffered is preceded by the words “at least,” which has been the case with Tagovailoa this past week. He’s suffered at least two concussions this season. We might have more specifics if those who are supposed to be looking out for him actually were.
Stevenson’s critical mistakes the past two weeks are easily forgiven for one reason: He’s been a rock for a Patriots offense that has essentially left him on his own to find yardage. His flaw, if you’d call it that, is that he tries to do too much, because those around him aren’t doing enough.
Stevenson needs 56 rushing yards to become the 17th player in Patriots history to reach 1,000 in a season. The Dolphins have a sturdy run defense (109.1 yards per carry, 10th in the league), but they won’t be able to deny Stevenson’s redemption. He’ll achieve the 1,000-yard milestone, and he’ll double Montgomery’s touchdown total from Week 1. Stevenson’s redemption comes Sunday, and the Patriots’ playoff hopes maintain a pulse for another week. Patriots 20, Dolphins 16.
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