|Dolphins Odds||+3.5 (-115)|
|Patriots Odds||-3.5 (-105)|
|Time||4:25 p.m. ET|
|Odds via DraftKings. Find up-to-the-minute NFL odds here.|
Mac Jones and Tua Tagovailoa used to share the same quarterback room at Alabama. On Sunday, they’ll kick off the new NFL season as starters on opposing teams.
It’s the first full year as a starter for both QBs. Tagovailoa is clearly the guy this year after struggling through 2020 with Ryan Fitzpatrick often taking the role. Jones was New England’s first-round pick and won the job in the preseason, with the Patriots moving on from veteran Cam Newton. There are no fall-back plans in 2021. These teams will live and die with Tua and Mac, and this could be a division rivalry for years to come.
The Patriots won single-digit games last season for the first time since 2002, a remarkable streak. Their fall left an opening for the Dolphins, who leapt to 10-6 and nearly made the playoffs.
This is a key Week 1 game since these teams are fighting each other for second in the AFC East and a shot at Buffalo at the top. This one will matter in the division race and maybe the wild-card picture. So which young quarterback will get the win?
Dolphins Success Falls On Tagovailoa’s Shoulders
The arrow on these Dolphins sure looks pointed up. Just two seasons ago, Miami started the year 0-7 and looked absolutely abysmal, losing its first two games by 92 combined points. At that point, it looked like a long rebuild was in order. But Brian Flores put the Dolphins on track quickly. Miami surprisingly won five of its final nine, then carried that momentum into its 10-6 record last year.
The 2019 Dolphins finished dead last in the NFL in DVOA, per Football Outsiders, even with that strong finish. Last year’s squad leapt all the way to 12th overall. The defense rose from 32nd to 11th in Defensive DVOA, a remarkable improvement.
It’s fair to wonder just how sustainable that leap will be. This defense may be more schematic than just talent, and some of the numbers suggest regression may be on the way. The Dolphins were absolutely elite on third down last season. They led the league with just 31.2% conversion allowed, and history tells us that’s not a sticky stat, meaning that rate likely regresses to the mean in 2021. Miami also had an unsustainably high interception rate and got a lot of turnover breaks last season. That’s another area likely to regress.
Xavien Howard and Byron Jones are a great cornerback pair, but Howard almost certainly will not pick off 10 passes again, and the Dolphins lost Shaq Lawson and Kyle Van Noy on defense. This shouldn’t be a bad defense, but it might be closer to average than good.
The offense, on the other hand, could be a real issue. Miami’s offensive line is still a major struggle, and the run game has been non-existent for years. Myles Gaskin and Malcolm Brown aren’t scaring anyone, and the young line is improving but will have its hands full in this game, especially with Austin Jackson out on the COVID list.
If there’s not much run game, that means it’s all on Tagovailoa’s shoulder — as this entire Miami season might be. He’s certainly got some talented targets. DeVante Parker has his moments, Will Fuller was a great deep-threat addition and rookie Jaylen Waddle adds a supernova speed element. Mike Gesicki is a real weapon at tight end too.
But Tagovailoa hasn’t been very good yet. He did win six of nine starts last season, but Miami was winning in spite of the rookie QB, not because of him. He was a game manager at best, with a poor 6.3 YPA and an inability to hit big plays down the field. He’s not getting a ton of help with such shoddy blocking and no real run game to speak of, and it’s a big ask for Tagovailoa this season.
If Tagovailoa is the player he was supposed to be, Miami could win 10 a second straight year and push for the playoffs. But this revitalized New England defense will be a tough test out of the gates, and it feels like we’ll get a sense quickly about whether Tagovailoa is ready for this challenge.
Patriots Field Re-Tooled Roster After Busy Offseason
Comparatively, Mac Jones enters a much more favorable situation than his old Alabama counterpart. New England is better on defense, better on the line and better in the run game.
Let’s start with the defense. New England ranked first in the NFL in Defensive DVOA in 2019 but fell apart entirely last year, plummeting to 26th. As shocking as that seems, it wasn’t so unexpected because the Patriots lost more players to COVID opt-outs than any team by far. This year’s defense has retooled and should be very good.
Miami’s loss is New England’s gain as Van Noy rejoins the Pats, and Dont’a Hightower is back after missing last season. The Patriots also splashed on Matt Judon. That’s a pretty significant makeover of the front seven, and it was badly needed for one of the league’s worst run defenses a year ago. Miami is not built to challenge that potential weak spot with its poor run game.
The offense should be greatly improved too. New England invested heavily in its heavies. The offensive line has been a secret Bill Belichick strength over the years and should be even better with the addition of Trent Brown. The pass protection was poor last year but was likely hurt by Newton, who held onto the ball too long. One of Jones’ strengths is his quick decision making and throwing, so he will make his offensive line look good, and vice versa.
The Patriots also brought in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith at tight end, and Jakobi Meyers is starting to step up as a potential go-to receiver. Damien Harris is another Alabama guy who could be ready for a breakout season, especially with Newton’s rushing out of the way and a chance to run behind a talented line.
While everything in Miami appears to be on Tagovailoa’s shoulders, Jones is in a much better position to succeed. Josh McDaniels will have a good system in place, and a stable run game and superb blocking will set the rookie QB up to succeed.
I like New England much better entering this season than Miami, so this is a great spot to trust our preseason read.
Miami’s greatest strength is its pair of elite corners, and Howard and Jones are a bit wasted against a team without much at receiver anyway. New England’s biggest weakness, for now, is its run game, and the Dolphins don’t have the runners or blocking to exploit that. The matchup trends the Patriots’ direction.
You might be afraid to back a rookie quarterback in Week 1, but you shouldn’t be. Per Rich Hribar, non-No. 1 overall rookie QB starters are 10-3 ATS over the past decade and 6-7 straight up. Jones was not handed this job — he earned it, and he’ll get help from his line, defense and coaches.
Besides, Tagovailoa hasn’t proven he’s much more than a rookie just yet anyway, and Belichick has a great history of success against young quarterbacks. New England has also won 11 of its last 12 home games against the Dolphins.
I like the Patriots a lot in this spot. This line moved in New England’s direction and hit the key number of -3.5 from -2.5 earlier this week, but I am still betting it. I would make New England closer to a 5-point favorite. I’ll play the Pats to cover as high as that number if necessary.
Pick: Patriots -3.5 (+100) at BetMGM