By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — A full stadium. A real football game. It’s finally happening.
Though New Englanders will have to last a few extra hours on Sunday, that 4:25 p.m. kickoff will be worth the wait.
While there was football last season, what took place inside of empty or nearly empty stadiums wasn’t quite what we’ve come to know as real football. And in the case of what the Patriots put forth, it wasn’t exactly good football much of the time, either.
Yet now it is, unequivocally, a new era in New England football. The temporary Tom Brady replacement is no longer aboard, and the quarterback of the future has been chosen. How Mac Jones handles that heavy duty can’t be known yet — not by us, not by Bill Belichick, not by Josh McDaniels, and not by Jones himself. But thus far, the signs are positive. And that sterling collegiate resume gives him a better chance to succeed than most.
Jones will of course be at the center of everyone’s focus when this game begins on Sunday, when the Miami Dolphins visit Gillette Stadium. But there will be a whole lot more going on, all of which figures to play an important role in determining which team will start 1-0 and which team will start 0-1.
THE GROUND GAME
Quarterback talk is fun, no doubt. Nobody can deny that. But do you know what might be really fun for the Patriots this year? That would be the ground game.
While the Patriots did lose Cam Newton (and his near-600 rushing yards and 12 TDs) and Joe Thuney, they also gained the ever-massive Trent Brown, promising rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, and two big-name tight ends who can help the running game in several ways. They also like what they see in J.J. Taylor as an elusive back entering year two in the system.
The Dolphins made some offseason additions — including the signing of Adam Butler — to help shore up a run defense that was in the middle of the pack last year. The Patriots mostly did what they wanted on the ground vs. Miami last year, rushing for 5.2 yards per carry, totaling 334 yards and three touchdowns on 64 rushes over the two head-to-head matchups. The bulk of that was done in Week 1, with Newton leading the way with 75 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
Obviously, that element of the Patriots’ offense is gone. But with what should be a more stable, cohesive passing attack, the running game should stand to benefit, and the Patriots should be among the NFL’s best at moving the ball on the ground. Sunday afternoon marks their first opportunity to live up to those standards.
THE (OTHER) ROOKIE
With all eyes on Mac, don’t forget about Quinn.
Quarterback wasn’t the only important position where the Patriots opted for a rookie over a veteran, as the team kept Quinn Nordin — undrafted out of Michigan — as the lone kicker on the 53-man roster for the season. While Nick Folk remains on the practice squad and thus could be elevated if needed, it looks like Nordin is going to get his shot.
The 23-year-old had an up-and-down preseason. He was 3-for-3 on field goals, including a 50-yarder, in his preseason debut, but he missed one of his two PATs. In his second game, he missed two PATs and a short field goal, finishing the night 2-for-4 on PATs and 1-for-2 on field goals. He finished fairly strong, though, successfully kicking three of his four kicks (three field goals, one PAT) in the preseason finale, with the lone miss being a late 53-yard attempt.
That — plus his work in practice — was enough for Nordin to win the job over Folk. But after just playing four games last year, it’s been a long time since Nordin has kicked in a pressure-packed situation, with tens of thousands of people in the building and many more watching at home. In what should be a close game, the rookie kicker figures to play a prominent role.
(On the other side, Jason Sanders is coming off an excellent year for Miami. After a very shaky 2019, when he missed seven field goals, Sanders was 36-for-39 on field goals and a perfect 36-for-36 on PATs last year.)
A lot has been made about Stephon Gilmore’s absence and the impact that will have on the Patriots’ defense as a whole. Rightfully so — Gilmore is that good when he’s at his best.
Yet it’s worth remembering that even when Gilmore was the best defensive player in the NFL … DeVante Parker still carved him up. Real bad.
Parker torched Gilmore and the Patriots to the tune of eight catches for 137 yards in Week 17 of the 2019 season, which was sneakily one of the worst regular-season losses of the Brady-Belichick era. It lost the Patriots a first-round bye, forcing them to play on wild-card weekend and giving the Chiefs a first-round bye en route to their Super Bowl victory in Kansas City. The Patriots’ season ended a week later.
It doesn’t get talked about much, not after Brady left and everything changed. But that loss was a killer.
Parker had a more muted performance vs. Gilmore and the Patriots last year, catching four passes (on four targets) for 47 yards in Miami’s Week 1 loss in Foxboro. He was inactive — so was Gilmore — for the rematch in Miami late in the year.
As it relates to this week, Parker will be the first test for the Gilmore-less secondary. Whether it’s J.C. Jackson who draws primary Parker duty, or if the brain trust of three Belichicks and a Mayo throw a variety of looks at No. 11, the big-bodied receiver figures to be the primary target for Tua Tagovailoa in this one. If the Patriots can’t contain Parker, things could get ugly in a flash.
You can only resist the QB talk for so long. And the juice here … it’s irresistible.
Prior to April, the Patriots hadn’t selected a quarterback in the first round since Drew Bledsoe in 1993. It had been a while. And with Brady manning the spot for two decades, even the higher draft picks at the position — Jimmy G. late in the second round in 2014, or Ryan Mallett/Kevin O’Connell/Jacoby Brissett in the third round — didn’t pack nearly as much intrigue as this one.
A first-round pick. At quarterback. Coming off an undefeated national championship season. At Alabama.
This is the big time, folks.
And while Mac Jones’ career won’t be defined by what takes place on Sunday afternoon, you can bet that every single thing he does — every throw, every completion, every pick, every call at the line, every hit taken, every word spoken, every bit of body language shown — it’s going to be analyzed and scrutinized and broken down frame-by-frame to the point of exhaustion. It’ll be a little over the top.
But again, it’s been a while since this region has looked at a new first-round QB in the flesh the way it will with Mac. So for as much as this divisional game will be decided by a whole lot of people other than Jones … we’re all going to have a hard time focusing elsewhere. For the Patriots and for Jones, Sunday is a rather significant day.
Tune in to Patriots-Dolphins on Sunday, Sept. 12 on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots! Patriots All Access airs at 7 p.m. on Friday night on WBZ! Our opening day coverage begins with Patriots GameDay at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, and the Patriots and the Dolphins kick off at 4:25 p.m. After the game switch over to TV38 for full reaction and analysis on Patriots 5th Quarter!