The Patriots are set to kick off the 2020 season against the Miami Dolphins this Sunday! After a truncated training camp and no preseason games, the entire NFL is about to enter a strange season, one that will feature limited fans at game and, in many cases, no fans at all.
Things are looking different, and that's especially true for the Patriots. There will be a new quarterback and many of the familiar faces on defense are now on other teams or decided to opt out of the season. What we're left with is a new-look squad with plenty of youth, Cam Newton at the offensive controls and as much uncertainty as any team in the league.
The one certainty? That the Patriots still have the best coach in the league and if anyone can reshape the Patriots during a season in the midst of a pandemic, it's Bill Belichick. But it will be a season-long process and no one knows quite for sure to expect from the 2020 Patriots in their very first game.
What do these Patriots have to do to get the season started with a win over their division rivals? Here are the Keys to the Game!
New offense unleashed?
The Patriots have kept close wraps on their plans with Newton and there's no question, he brings an intriguing new element to the offense with his size and athleticism. But how will he mesh with the rest of the offense? Can he execute Josh McDaniels' passing game?
When we last left the Patriots, their offense was sporadic and unproductive in losing four of their last six games. While the offensive line welcomes back David Andrews and there's some new young tight ends in the mix, there are big questions about how dynamic the weaponry around Newton really is. Plenty of second-year players are needed step up.
The simplest philosophy this week is to lean on the running game. Between Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and James White, it's their strongest group on offense and one that wasn't productive enough last season.
In the Week 17 loss to Miami they had 135 rushing yards, but just 217 passing yards, so riding the run isn't a slam dunk, but including Newton in some designed runs, while managing the down-and-distance with productive early-down ground work should make life in the passing game easier.
The Dolphins will lean on former Pats and new captains Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy to snuff out New England's run game, a fascinating matchup against players that are well-known in Foxborough.
If Michel, Burkhead and White can't get things going on the ground, it's going to be tough sledding for the Patriots offense to get on track. Fullback Jakob Johnson's development could be a big factor.
Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch ahead of the Patriots season opener against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, September 13, 2020.
Lean on the secondary
Ryan Fitzpatrick is 3-10 against the Patriots, but has been productive even in some of the losses, especially early in the season when he's playing for Chan Gailey. Fitpatrick and Gailey will now have faced the Patriots with each of the other three AFC East teams.
Usually, Fitz and Gailey have been willing to throw the ball 40 times against the Patriots. If Fitzpatrick throws one interception they might win, if he throws four, they won't. That's the risk this coach-QB combo has been willing to take but they'll be throwing into the clear strength of the Patriots defense.
But last season the secondary didn't have any answers for Fitzpatrick, who threw for 320 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in Week 17. It was the only time all year the Patriots defense gave up 300 yards passing. Will the Dolphins take the same approach? The Patriots might hope they do because Stephon Gilmore and friends should be motivated by last year's result.
Receivers DeVante Parker and Preston Williams have been battling injuries but have terrific size, while Jakeem Grant and Isaiah Ford have good speed and tight end Mike Gesicki is coming off a 51-catch breakout campaign. The Dolphins have the pieces if they're healthy and the Patriots will have to choose their matchups wisely.
Run defense tested
What should be more tempting for Miami is to attack on the ground with their two new running backs – power runner Jordan Howard and speed runner Matt Breida. Their contrasting styles should be ideal to test a Patriots front seven that has seen more turnover than anywhere else on the roster. Gone are some of the most reliable run stoppers on the Patriots defense, including Dont'a Hightower, Roberts and mammoth nose tackle Danny Shelton.
With free agent Beau Allen on IR, the Patriots are going to have to prove they're better on the field, because on paper it looks like the run defense should have a big bullseye on it. Still, with two rookie offensive linemen slated to start for Miami and old friend Ted Karras in the middle at center, the Patriots shouldn't be overwhelmed.
Jason McCourty said this week that stopping the run is the first priority on defense and that should be tested early and often by Miami. Ja'Whaun Bentley figures to have a huge role in getting the defense aligned and making sure Howard and Breida don't break loose, while Byron Cowart might be the x-factor for the Patriots in his second-season.
Capitalize on mistakes
The Patriots weren't perfect last year but they were opportunistic on defense throughout the early part of the season and they'll need to be even more so in 2020. With no preseason games, ball security will be heightened.
It's not hard to see this game being decided by an untimely turnover or a surprising special teams play, and there's sure to be plenty of those kind of plays sprinkled throughout the game. The Patriots are usually able to weather those storms and most often come out on the plus side.
Every mistake will magnified in this opening game and the team who simply plays the cleaner football game should probably squeak it out.
It will be a back and forth affair, with many fits and starts, but the Patriots avoid the critical mistake that decides the game and Fitzpatrick does not.
Patriots 17, Dolphins 16