Tom E. Curran

Patriots-Dolphins preview: Sunday will tell us plenty about Pats' direction

Hard Rock Stadium will be a proving ground for the Patriots.

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There’s a mess of plotlines to Sunday’s Patriots-Dolphins game in South Florida.

Before we get to them – and the prediction – what NFL has Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel been watching?

“I think Coach Belichick got his start when I was going to prom, right?” McDaniel said this week. “How many of the scenarios have been like, ‘What’s happening with the team after four weeks?’ It created adversity and sure enough they get better as the season progresses. I think that’s the formula. I think that’s the end-all for NFL football. I see a better version of themselves, as I would expect.”

They definitely USED TO do that, the 2014 and 2018 seasons being the most memorable examples in my opinion. But they don’t do that anymore.

They were 59-11 in December during Belichick’s first 19 seasons. They’re 8-15 in December since 2019.

The seasons follow a familiar pattern. Stink at the start. Better in the middle when the schedule seems to annually ease up and the team adjusts to who they are and how they want to play. Stink at the end when teams readjust to the Patriots' adjustments and it becomes a “talent” game.

Will 2023 be different? Will it be like old times? Will McDaniel wind up being a visionary? Well, the Patriots did accomplish something last week they hadn’t done since Jimmy G. beat the Cardinals in the 2016 opener.

They won a game nobody expected them to win against a superior team with no injury excuses or bizarre weather intervening. They took control of the game early. They never do that. They burped up the lead with a mistake. They always do that. They regained control and closed like champs. They never do that.

Was it a landmark game or lightning in a bottle? If the Patriots can follow up with a win in Miami, we would have the answer. Can they?

I mean … seems unlikely. But I said they’d win 27-23 in Dallas and lose to the Bills 38-13. So I’m on a cold snap.

Want some reasons they COULD win?

The Dolphins offensive line looked ROUGH last week in the loss to the Eagles.

Playing without three starters on the offensive line for most of the night, the Dolphins allowed 14 pressures and four sacks and ran for 45 yards. They managed a season-low 245 total yards after averaging 498.7 coming into the game. The Dolphins also committed 10 penalties for 70 yards.

Tua Tagovailoa took three sacks and threw for 216 yards on his 32 attempts. The 6.8 yards per attempt was the second time in the past two years he’s been under 7.0. It was the first time this year he was under 8.0 YPA. And his air yards per attempt were by far a season low: 5.97. Given time, Tua dissects. Under pressure, he is -- like his counterpart Mac Jones -- average.

Another reason? Tyreek Hill is dealing with a hip issue. Jaylen Waddle had back spasms last week, Raheem Mostert was limited with an ankle injury. And speedy running back Devon Achane is on IR.

The Patriots defense is dinged too but last week was evidence their depth and scheming ability are allowing them to weather their losses.

Week after week, they make No. 1 receivers look normal. They’ll try to do the same with Hill again on Sunday.

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In light of that, McDaniel said, “If they are taking away one thing, you’re giving up another thing. If people are going to overplay one thing, you have to be able to execute another. If you really commit, you can put 11 players on one guy. But that leaves other players available, and the structure of the defense a little vulnerable.

"We’ll always have a feature player in our scheme. We’ll always have him involved in some way, shape or form. But when people over-commit to something, other guys have to make plays. That’s the cool balancing act of NFL game day, which is one of the reasons why it’s so fun.”

Even if the Patriots defense shows up, where’s the guarantee the light-punching offense will play the kind of efficient, mistake-free style that allowed them to play with a lead?

There’s none. But there was evidence last week that Jones’ mental re-programming is making progress. How many times did he throw gas on the fire the past two years when trying to make a play he was physically incapable of against NFL talent? Several. But I saw multiple occasions last week when Jones took his medicine when protection went south or receivers didn’t uncover. The most prominent was a third down option route he could have thrown to Demario Douglas at the end of the first half that he pulled down because Douglas wasn’t where Jones expected him to be. A punt can be a good play.

The Patriots were able to put up a season-high 29 points vs. Buffalo on Sunday. Tom Curran and Phil Perry discuss whether or not they can sustain this improvement.

As for the reasons the Patriots will fall to 2-6 and drop to 2-2 in the AFC East (rather than a gaudy 3-1)? It’s so f*&*%^% hot down there. It’s going to be 84 degrees. But Miami’s 84 isn’t like our 84, as many of you who’ve traveled there understand.

The slap in the face the heat brings early in the game takes some adjustment. And by the end, there’s some flagging. Which makes it hard to start quickly (something the Patriots struggle to do in perfect conditions).

Which then puts them in the hole and causes them to abandon offensive balance. They’re not good enough to be predictable and still gain yards. And Miami’s offense at home is far different than on the road. The Dolphins have scored 143 total points in three games at home this year (70, 31 and 42 against the Broncos, Giants and Panthers).

The Patriots had one terrific game without Christian Gonzalez and Matt Judon. They’ve been otherwise disastrous. Expecting them to begin habitually shutting down good teams because they beat the Bills is unrealistic.

Especially when the Bills are a “million-dollar talent, ten-cent head” kind of offensive scheme while Miami is triggered by a guy with limited arm talent and foot speed who happens to have a great brain, beautiful touch and the fastest offense in football.

Tua’s 5-0 against the Patriots. McDaniel is 2-1, the loss being a Tua-less defeat last December. The Patriots have played the hardest schedule in the league this year based on combined winning percentage of opponents. Miami’s played the 30th-hardest.

The Patriots can expose Miami as paper tigers. Or find that last week’s stirring win was the aberration.

We’ll find out in the first 30 minutes, because a slow start for the Patriots means bye-bye feel-good vibes, hello trade deadline speculation. My guess? They still ain’t got it.

Prediction: Dolphins 26, Patriots 20

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