A couple of Alabama quarterbacks will be kicking off the 2021 regular season for the Patriots and Dolphins on Sunday. While Miami proved loyal to second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa this offseason after an uninspiring rookie campaign, the pressure is on for the former No. 5 overall pick to take a second-year leap and help the Dolphins reach the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Patriots are coming into this year after an unprecedented offseason where they spent big in free agency and drafted Mac Jones with the No. 15 overall pick in the draft. Jones was able to beat out Cam Newton for the starting job out of the gate and will now go up against Tagovailoa, who he played behind during their shared time with the Crimson Tide.
That’s quite the head to head that we’ll be able to sink our teeth into and should be appointment viewing for the afternoon slate on Sunday. Below, you’ll find our preview for this AFC East showdown.
How to watch
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Key matchups to watch
Mac Jones vs. Dolphins secondary
While Jones’ regular-season debut is certainly exciting, he does have the tough task of facing a strong Dolphins secondary headlined by corners Xavien Howard and Byron Jones. Last season, Miami was the sixth-best defense in the NFL in DVOA against the pass, only looking up to the Buccaneers, Rams, Saints, Washington Football Team, and Steelers. As for Howard, he’s coming into this season after ranking as Pro Football Focus’ second-highest graded corner in the entire NFL in 2020. Needless to say, this is going to be quite the test for Jones right out of the shoot. That said, the rookie did show a lot of command in the Patriots’ famously complex offense, running no-huddle and two-minute drills successfully throughout the preseason. So long as he can absorb the coaching that he’ll receive for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and others on New England’s staff, he should be put in a position to move the ball on this unit, despite some heavy-hitter lurking in the secondary.
Tua Tagovailoa vs. Patriots pass rush
While Jones has to deal with some star corners on Sunday, Tagovailoa will primarily be focusing on New England’s pass-rushing attack, especially with starting left tackle Austin Jackson (COVID) possibly sidelined for this game. The Patriots will be rolling out a revamped front seven in 2021 with the return of Dont’a Hightower (opt-out in 2020) and the arrival of Matt Judon being the primary additions to his unit. Throughout the preseason, Judon — who signed a four-year, $56 million contract with New England in free agency — was jumping on the tape for his ability to get after the quarterback and into the opposing backfield. He should be a chess piece for Bill Belichick that he can use off the edge or in the middle of the field, which will be fascinating to watch unfold, but likely a problem for Tagovailoa.
That said, the Dolphins second-year quarterback did find success in 2020 with less time in the pocket. When he had less than 2.5 seconds in the pocket, Tagovailoa completed 70% of his throws for an average of 6.4 yards per attempt and a 92.8 passer rating.
Latest Odds: New England Patriots -3
While I like the direction the Dolphins are heading, it’s hard for me to fade Belichick here. Not only is the Patriots’ overall roster improved from a year ago during their 7-9 campaign, but they should be getting much more efficient quarterback play with Jones under center. So long as Jones can limit the rookie hiccups, New England’s defense at home should make life difficult enough for Tagovailoa that the scoring will be kept to a manageable number for the first-rounder to keep pace.
Check out CBSSports.com for even more predictions on this game and the rest of Week 1.