FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – New seasons, by nature, bring with them a certain combination of uncertainty and excitement. Perhaps none more so than this 2020 NFL season, being held under the pall of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Lending an element of familiarity and symmetry, however, are the Miami Dolphins, the AFC East foe whom the Patriots last faced in the 2019 regular season finale. They're coached by a number of former Patriots assistants and feature several former players on their roster this year.
Of course, the biggest question on most observers' minds is about the new face under center for New England. How would Cam Newton change the dynamic of the Patriots' offense after 20 years of Tom Brady?
"It was fun to get out there and finally play with him," wide receiver Julian Edelman said afterward, "along with all the other new teammates… it was good to see what the 2020 team is about. It was awesome. We went out there and battled and got a W. [Cam] made some big plays. It was cool to witness that. He brings an energy, he's fun to play with."
"He's been a great teammate. You've got to love watching that guy play the game," center and fellow co-captain David Andrews remarked about Newton's successful Patriots debut. "Seeing all the work he's put in, I'm super proud of him. We had some fun out there today."
The stark contrast between Brady and Newton running this offense – key word here is "running" – became evident almost immediately, as Newton read-options and other designed runs proved effective in moving the football consistently against Miami's defense. After New England's defense forced a Miami three-and-out to start the game, two of the first four New England plays were designed runs for Newton, who gained positive yardage on both efforts, including a first-down. In all, Newton gained 75 yards on 15 rushing attempts – an even five yards per carry – and a pair of touchdowns with his legs.
"That's what he's done his whole career. You expect nothing less," running back and co-captain James White observed about Newton and his gains on the ground. "He's a big, physical guy. When the ball's in his hands, he makes the right reads, and he's able to get a lot of yards out of it. That's a bonus for us.
"I think we just wanted to establish the run game early in the season. We wanted to play physical. Thought we did that. Obviously we still have things to work on, but it was a great start."
New England's focus on the running game chewed up considerable clock throughout the day. The Patriots wound up winning the time of possession advantage 35 minutes to 25, thanks in large part to the success of the rushing attack.
"The coaches challenged us [today] and I thought we answered for the most part," added Andrews. "We've got a lot to get better at, but this was a good building block. I'm proud of the guys the way they worked all week and all summer. It was a good team win."
Meanwhile, New England's run defense, which suffered mightily in the Wild-Card loss to Tennessee back in January, held Miami to around half a field by intermission. The Dolphins managed only 87 yards total by game's end, a paltry 3.3 average per carry. Patriots defenders knew they'd have to solidify this aspect of their play in order to get off to a better start in 2020 than 2019 ended.
"We talked about it," safety and co-captain Devin McCourty acknowledged later. "The way you end the season, coming into this new season, we knew there'd be some element of that [from Miami's offense], with guys like Jordan Howard, who can run downhill and pound the ball. I thought guys came out ready up front, taking on that challenge, trying to make them one-dimensional by taking away the running game. That'll be something we've got to do every week. It won't be easy, with different kinds of offenses."
Second-year edge rusher Chase Winovich epitomized that aggressive style of run-defense. He finished with six total tackles (four solo), including a pair of run-stuffers on consecutive first-quarter plays, one for a loss of three yards which contributed to Miami's having to punt for the second time in as many drives at the outset.
"Chase has got good energy," head coach Bill Belichick raved afterward to reporters. "He's in good condition. He's got good stamina, speed, power. He's a very instinctive player. I would expect him to be out on the field a good part of the time, all games."
The secondary did its part for most of the afternoon, too, though it wasn't without its faults. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the league's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, thwarted one Miami drive with an early interception of QB Ryan Fitzpatrick in Dolphins territory. In the '19 finale, Gilmore surrendered eight catches for 137 yards to Miami receiver DeVante Parker.
By halftime Sunday, Parker had half as many grabs and only 47 yards, and that's what he'd end with – in part due to Parker's lingering hamstring injury, which limited him in practices all week. Yet, Gilmore also committed a couple of pass interference penalties Sunday afternoon, the first of which contributed to Miami's lone touchdown drive of the game, early in the fourth quarter to close the deficit to 14-11.
Newton and the O responded, though, by driving – mostly on the ground – to the Dolphins' 5-yard line, where they faced a 4th-and-short. Newton, running behind fullback Jakob Johnson, easily converted before tailback Sony Michel scored on a 1-yard run. Crucially, the Patriots again took precious time off the clock, and cornerback J.C. Jackson's INT just after the two-minute warning clinched the 21-11 victory.
"I thought we did some things really well. Like always, first game of the year, we have things we need to work on," McCourty admitted. "But I love the way our group competes. This is a good [Miami receiver] group we played today – [Preston] Williams and Parker and Jakeem Grant and [tight end Mike] Gesicki, a lot of weapons. We talked about it all week, it would come down to guys competing. Seeing Steph come up with a pick and A.P. [safety Adrian Phillips] and then J.C. to end the game, those are things we'll have to do… but a good start."
A good start, and a most unusual one. An unprecedented one, in fact, when you consider it was played in front of zero fans, due to the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions league-wide.
"Yeah, it's definitely different. Everything about it," McCourty agreed. "It kind of felt like back in high school. It was definitely a different feel. You had to make your own energy, you could hear everything going on out there on the field. You could hear trash-talking, communication. But I thought we adjusted. You could feel the energy on the big plays, but it was different without the crowd noise and having the fans there supporting us."
"Honestly, it reminded me of back at the College of San Matteo, my junior college," Edelman chuckled. "It was a full, love-of-the-game-type mentality out there. You could hear other guys. Everyone could hear each other. It was just about going out and playing the game that you love. It was obviously unfortunate that we don't have any fans. I mean, that energy in front of 75,000 is amazing, but it brought me back, at least, to like a high school, junior college, college [atmosphere].
"Playing a team in the division, under the circumstances that we've had to deal with as a whole league – going out there and making plays here and there – there's always things you can do better, but anytime you can go out and win a division game, that's a huge feat. The only stat that really matters is the scoreboard at the end of the game. It was good to get a 'W.' Now, looking forward to getting back to work and compounding off that."