The Patriots kicked off the 2021 season with a tough one-point loss to their divisional rival Miami Dolphins. New England looked poised to take a late lead when Damien Harris' fumble gave the ball back to Miami and the Dolphins would close things out on the ensuing drive.
There were some bright spots from the loss, including a solid debut for rookie quarterback Mac Jones and some notable performances from some new faces. However, the big plays and mistakes were enough to cost New England the game.
Here are the five key takeaways from the loss.
The Mac Jones Era Begins
With his first start, the Mac Jones era has begun in New England as Josh McDaniels eased the rookie in by leaning on the ground game early and letting Mac get a bit adjusted. In the second quarter, Jones would deliver the first touchdown pass of his career, a seven-yarder to Nelson Agholor that put the Pats up 10-7.
Jones showed surprising chemistry with Agholor after a summer that saw limited connections between the two. None of them were better than a second-and-15 throw by Jones where he stood in the pocket and delivered a nice downfield throw to the outside receiver.
The rookie would top that throw with a beautiful third-down conversion for 26 yards to James White in the third quarter. It was a critical play and a huge moment as the rookie started to gain some confidence as the game went on.
He'd need that confidence on the next drive early in the fourth quarter as Jones would stare down two big third-down conversions, one to Hunter Henry and another to James White. A third targeting Jakobi Meyers would fall incomplete, forcing the Pats to settle for a field goal. Still, with the team behind in the fourth quarter, the rookie quarterback helped grind out a 14-play scoring drive in crunch time to close the gap to a one-point game.
After a Jonathan Jones interception, Jones and the offense would take over and the rookie QB would again deliver a big third-down conversion, this time to Jakobi Meyers.
It was a solid debut for Jones, who showed the poise and anticipation that won him the job. Unfortunately, he could not do enough to help the offense put more points on the board.
Damien Harris' fumble kills potential win
Damien Harris took his first carry on the first play of the game for 35 yards. The Patriots wouldn't score on the drive but it was a sign of the kind of role Harris was about the play in the game with over 20 carries. Unfortunately, a late-fourth-quarter fumble deep in Dolphins territory took the potential game-winning points off of the board.
With Rhamondre Stevenson fumbling on his second touch, it put even more of a spotlight on Harris as the lead back, as the third-year running back provided some of the most effective plays of the game and was on his way to one of his best games as a Patriot. He would have an injury scare late in the first half when his helmet popped off bounced into his face but he would return.
With the passing offense finding its stride and unproven depth around him, Harris should continue to play a major role. Had the Patriots escaped with a win, Harris would be a big reason why, but his mistake was a big one and something he'll have to bounce back from. There's no question how much the team needs him to be one of their most reliable performers.
Big Plays Hurt Defense
The first drive of the game was one to forget for the Patriots defense, who didn't have any answers for the Dolphins' quick tempo and controlled passing attack. Miami produced a 10-play 80-yard touchdown drive but the defense would kick into gear after a Rhamondre Stevenson fumble caused a quick change. The D forced the punt off the turnover and it helped them get on track, led by an aggressive rush by the Patriots trio of veteran linebackers, Dont'a Hightower, Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy.
After the first drive, the defense would force three-straight punts but would allow a 36-yard reception to Jaylen Waddle just before the two-minute warning after the Patriots took a 10-7 lead. That helped kickstart a field-goal scoring drive that might've been a touchdown-scoring one if not for Josh Uche's impressive third-down sack. Uche bowled over rookie left tackle Liam Eichenberg and finished off Tua Tagovailoa to for Miami to settle for three points.
But Miami would carry the momentum over into the second half, with Tua completing a third-and-eight pass down the sideline, over J.C. Jackson to DeVante Parker for 30 yards. Miami would score six plays later to re-take the lead, 17-10.
Big plays were a factor against the Patriots' defense on the scoring drives and something they'll have to figure out how to stop.
Penalties, Turnovers and Red Zone Offense
In tight divisional games, it's the little things that often influence the outcome and the Patriots lost the battle when it came to penalties (8-84 for the Patriots, 5-28 for the Dolphins), turnovers (2-1) and in the red zone where Miami capitalized on both of their possessions inside the 20, while the Patriots scored just one touchdown in the game.
The Patriots managed to bounce back from Stevenson's fumble after a big stop by the defense, but Harris' late fumble at least cost them the lead in the game. Ball security is always of paramount importance and for good reason.
The red zone struggles however are a continuation of the last two seasons and with two new free-agent tight ends, it was hoped they'd help finish off drives with touchdowns. It was a quiet game for the Patriots offense inside the 20-yard line.