The New England Patriots lost their first game of the regular season to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. And it was a 17-16 heartbreaker, as the offense had driven down the field into field-goal range only to fumble it away. But there were some positives to take away. Let’s get into it.
1. Frustrating loss: The Dolphins won the opener in a fashion that the Patriots used to. New England outplayed Miami, and while it feels like they should’ve won by 10, they lost. The offense moved the ball up and down the field, but were only able to score 16 points. The Dolphins certainly didn’t play great, but they forced two turnovers, one of them in the closing minutes, and that was enough for the visitor to hold on. It was one of those games that leaves you shaking your head wondering how you possibly lost, which is exactly what the Patriots did for 20 years. You just can’t make a habit out of it.
2. Mac played great: It was his first career game, but Mac Jones looked very poised overall. The rookie was 29-of-39 with 281 yards and a TD. He was also fantastic under pressure, finishing 14-of-19 when under duress, which is very good for any quarterback, but outright ridiculous for one making his first career start. A few of the plays Jones made during the course of the game really stuck out. He hit James White on a beautiful pass down the sideline, he threw a perfect seam pass to Nelson Agholor, and he stayed in and took a hit multiple times to complete third-down passes, most impressively to Hunter Henry and Jakobi Meyers. It wasn’t all good, as Jones missed on a few out routes that could’ve turned into good gains, including one on third down to Meyers. There was also the play where the Alabama product forgot the rules of football and threw the ball backwards as he was being sacked. However, overall, the play was very solid from Jones. He showed a ton of poise in the pocket, and was unfazed by the mistakes and penalties that piled up. While it wasn’t perfect, his play should give you a ton of hope for this offense, and team, in the future.
3. Run defense struggles despite the final stat line: The Dolphins somehow only had 76 yards rushing in the game, but it looked much worse. They only ran the ball 23 times, and it was the read options that really killed the Patriots on Sunday. The wildcat, which has all but been eliminated from the league, reappeared. It wasn’t quite as bad as last year, but I was hoping for more from this defense. New England played a lot of the game with only two down linemen, so that may have contributed to some of it, but they are going to need to be better at stopping the run if they are going to be an elite defense.
4. Ball control issues: You simply cannot put the ball on the ground in football. The Dolphins fumbled zero times, and the Patriots fumbled four times. Now, one of them was the Mac Jones brain fart we already talked about, but a fumble by Smith in the red zone that David Andrews jumped on was a lucky break. The Rhamondre Stevenson fumble gave the Dolphins the ball around midfield after just going up 7-0, too, and then, of course, the Damien Harris fumble ended what would’ve been a lead-changing drive at the end of the fourth quarter. All of them were completely unacceptable, and something that usually doesn’t happen in New England. Harris especially, who made it a point to say that he walked around with a football in his hands all offseason. You have to imagine that this is going to get cleaned up, but it’s incredibly frustrating to lose a game because of ball control issues.
5. Pressuring the QB: We talked about the Patriots having struggles against the run, and it wasn’t perfect against the pass either, but the Patriots did a great job attacking and pressuring Tua Tagovailoa when they did go back to pass. New England only ended the game with two sacks, but their impact was felt numerous other times. It was a group effort, with Josh Uche and Kyle Van Noy getting the sacks, but many others getting in Tua’s face. Matthew Judon applied the pressure that forced the second-year QB into his interception, and Chase Winovich got in there a few times, too. It was good to see and, hopefully, there’s a lot more to come.
6. Kicker competition: Nick Folk was elevated from the practice squad to the active roster on Saturday, and he was perfect on Sunday. The veteran kicker just barely squeaked his extra point in, but it was still good. He also hit field goals from 27, 42 and 33 yards out. It was the first drive of the game that caught my attention. The Patriots punted from the Dolphins’ 37, which after a touchback only ended up being a 17-yard net punt, but they didn’t even attempt a field goal. They couldn’t, because Folk doesn’t have the leg to hit what would’ve been about a 54-yard field goal. They can only call Folk back up to the active roster one more time before officially signing him to it, so they’re going to have to make a decision sooner rather than later. Look for undrafted rookie Quinn Nordin to get the start next week at MetLife Stadium, and his play there could determine the decision that they end up making.
7. Penalties: The Patriots were penalized eight times for 84 yards, while the Dolphins were only penalized five times for 28 yards. There were some very costly ones as well, perhaps none bigger than the holding on Isaiah Wynn that negated a second-quarter TD by Harris. The Patriots would end up settling for a field goal, and those four points could’ve turned that loss into a win. The penalties were unacceptable as a whole, even though the Shaq Mason penalty was ridiculous. That is something that also needs to get fixed moving forward. I have a feeling the film review isn’t going to be fun for the offensive line.
8. Offensive pickups looked great: The Patriots spent big money this offseason on multiple offensive weapons, and they got some solid results from them in Week 1. Agholor looked like the best receiver on the team, and finished with five catches for 72 yards and a TD. At tight end, Smith and Henry both made some big plays and should make this offense much better. Henry had a few big first-down catches, and Smith was all over the the field. Mac also missed his tight ends a few times, so we could see even more out of them in the future. Even Kendrick Bourne had a few nice plays, but they were called back because of penalties. The one disappointment on offense was Trent Brown, who left with an injury early in the game. Hopefully the right tackle is going to be fine moving forward, because the protection wasn’t great after he went out. The Patriots spent invested heavily this offseason, and after one game, it looks like it might investments well spent.
9. Questionable coaching decisions: This could be a long section, so buckle up. It starts with the inactive list. I was shocked to see J.J. Taylor as a healthy scratch, and that turned out to be costly as Stevenson, who has had trouble holding onto the ball, fumbled on his second touch of the game. I’m not sure why Taylor wasn’t in that Stevenson role, and I think we might see him there next week. Then there is the offensive play-calling. If I have to watch another toss to Harris for zero yards, I’m going to lose my mind. I know offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels sometimes falls in love with plays, but I’d like to hope that those plays would actually gain yards. I’ll be OK never seeing that call again. New England also needs a better kick returner than Brandon Bolden, who insists on taking out kicks that are five yards deep in the end zone and getting tackled short of the 25. The one he took out this week ended up costing them 15 yards, because there was also a holding call on the play. Lastly, were some of the decisions on defense. Judon came off the field quite a few times on third down, and there was even an important play or two where he and Dont’a Hightower were off the field on a big play. The decision to play the majority of the game with two or three down linemen could have contributed to their struggles against the run. We all know that Belichick typically uses the first few games like an extension of the preseason, giving a bunch of players a ton of reps. There were a lot of mistakes made by the players on Sunday, but the coaching staff had its fair share as well. Let’s hope they all can clean that up quickly.
10. It was good to be home: No matter what the final outcome of the game was, it was great to be back in the building for a home regular-season Patriots game. Last year was the first year since 1992 that I didn’t attend at least one home game, and it was so nice being back at Gillette Stadium. The crowd was excited to be there, and was loud at points. There was a ton of excitement over Mac and the new additions, and the atmosphere was pretty good overall. There’s nothing quite like going to a home Patriots game, and I consider myself lucky to be able to be there again. Hopefully the outcomes will be more positive, but there’s nothing better than losing your voice screaming your head off at the Patriots game. Is there such a thing as a good loss? I don’t think so, but there is definitely reason for optimism moving forward.