FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When the Patriots kick off the 2021 season Sunday afternoon at 4:25 versus the Dolphins, fans across New England will once again be strapping in for an unpredictable season.
It’s year two in the post-Brady era and now New England will try out its second quarterback in the herculean effort to fill the void left by the now seven-time Super Bowl champ. Cam Newton’s release from the team shocked even those who wanted the former MVP out, but it cleared the way for rookie Mac Jones as QB1.
NEWS CENTER Maine's Pat Callaghan checked in with Locked On's Mike D'Abate on what he expects in this Week 1 matchup. You can hear why D'Abate thinks this will be a game focused on the defensive side of the ball with plenty of fresh faces for both teams.
Mike D'Abate of Sports Illustrated's Patriot Maven is the grand poobah for your New England Patriots podcasting needs.
Join Mike for your daily dose of news, notes, and analysis on the six-time Super Bowl champions New England Patriots. From Boston, Mass.—to Providence, Rhode Island—to Aroostook County, Maine, Pats fans get their coverage from Locked On Patriots, part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
Before you watch the Week 1 matchup between New England and Miami, here is a season preview for both the casual Sunday fan to those of us who love breaking down the X’s and O’s.
WHO TO WATCH FOR
MAC JONES No. 10: Duh. The former Alabama quarterback and first-round draft pick assumed the starting job after impressing head coach Bill Belichick and all of Patriots Nation this preseason. In three games under center, he didn’t throw an interception in 52 passing attempts. His completion percentage was close to 70% in those games. No. 10 will now face former 'Bama teammate Tua Tagovailoa in his NFL regular-season debut. After watching Cam Newton last season, and watching Tom Brady for nearly two decades, Patriots fans understand how crucial quarterback play is. It's time to see if the rookie can bring New England back to the postseason.
NEW TIGHT ENDS: When New England spent a whopping $163 million in free agency this summer, the team made it clear they were revamping an offense that ranked among the league’s worst a season ago. A staple to Patriots’ teams for years has been the tight end position. Jonnu Smith No. 81 (Tennessee) and Hunter Henry No. 85 (Los Angeles) come to Foxborough as two of the better tight ends in the league. Henry hasn’t practiced much and hasn’t played in the preseason at all due to a shoulder injury, but both TE’s will give their rookie quarterback big targets in the middle of the field starting Week 1.
WHO ARE THESE RECEIVERS? New England has never had a reputation as a ‘wide receiver factory’ but last year’s play from that position group was not up to par for any NFL organization. Kendrick Bourne No. 84 (San Francisco) and Nelson Agholor No. 15 (Las Vegas) were brought in to help solve that issue. The two new Patriots will see time with Jakobi Meyers, now entering his third season, and former first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry when he returns to the lineup. Harry suffered a shoulder injury during the preseason and is expected to miss another few weeks.
THE DAMIEN HARRIS SHOW: After trading Sony Michel to the L.A. Rams, Damien Harris will now be the solidified No. 1 running back for the Patriots with James White back again to fill his role as a clutch receiving back in big-play situations. Rhamondre Stevenson impressed during the preseason, and he and J.J. Taylor will sub in for Harris during every game.
THE QUARTERBACK'S BEST FRIENDS: Mac Jones will have a lot of new challenges to handle this season, but luckily for him he will have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL giving him time in the pocket to throw and create space for the running game. Pro Football Focus ranked the Pats O-Line as the third-best in the league. David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Trent Brown, Isaiah Wynn, and Mike Onwenu will make up the unit to begin the season.
WELCOME & WELCOME BACK: Longtime Patriots middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower No. 54 is back in the center of the defense for the Patriots. The former Super Bowl champ opted out of last season due to COVID-19 concerns. Kyle Van Noy No. 53 rejoins Hightower in the linebacker room after leaving New England for a brief stint with Week 1 opponent Miami. Matt Judon No. 9 left the Baltimore Ravens to join the Patriots in the offseason and will fill an outside linebacker position for a defense that is projected to be among the league’s best this season.
NO FLY ZONE: J.C. Jackson No. 27 finished second in the NFL with nine interceptions last year, and the Pats' secondary play was one of the few highlights of the team’s 7-9 record a season ago. Jalen Mills No. 2 joins the defensive backs after playing in Philadelphia. All-Pro Stephon Gilmore is on injured reserve and can return to action after Week 6. Second-year Kyle Dugger No. 23 will start most games on the bench. However, the safety can not only play the "center field" of the defense but also will be used to blitz the quarterback in certain situations.
NO NEED TO REINVENT THE WHEEL: The Patriots' special teams unit has been a staple during the franchise’s six Super Bowl victories. Jake Bailey No. 7 returns as the punter and Pro Bowl return man Gunner Olszewski No. 80 will look to build on his career year from last season. Quinn Nordin No. 3 will take over the place-kicking responsibilities and look to rebuild Patriots fans' trust in kickers.
Week 4 vs. Tampa Bay
No shocker here. Tom Brady and the Super Bowl Champion Bucs come to Foxborough for what could likely be the most-watched regular-season game in NFL history. Tampa Bay started off the season with a thrilling Week 1 win over Dallas and if Patriots fans know anything, it’s that Brady gets better as the season goes on. New England will have three weeks to bring their game up to Tampa’s level to give the tilt a fitting display of competitive play that can match the hype leading up to the game.
Weeks 13 & 16 against Buffalo
The betting favorite to win the AFC East is the Buffalo Bills. The team led by Josh Allen made it to the AFC Championship game last season and is expected to make it to that point again, if not advance to the Super Bowl. For that reason, beating Buffalo at least once would give New England a huge lift in its goal to reclaim the division throne or make the playoffs as a wildcard. Both teams will have plenty of time to prepare for their first meeting on Monday, Dec. 6. New England enters its bye week after the game and will see the Bills in Foxborough again the day after Christmas.
Weeks 6 & 12 hosting Dallas and Tennessee
The game against Brady will bring all the attention, but another good offensive team will come to town a few weeks later when the Cowboys play the Patriots on Oct. 17. If Thursday’s game showed anything to the NFL, it’s that Dallas's offense will be one of the best units in the league and could make this matchup for New England one to circle in the first half of the season.
The Titans come to Gillette on Nov. 28 and will bring yet another impressive collection of offensive weapons. Running back Derrick Henry and wide receivers Julio Jones and A.J. Brown will give steady quarterback Ryan Tannehill enough weapons to return to the playoffs and give the Patriots defense all they can handle in week 12.
Week 10 vs. Cleveland: Hype around the Browns has been a consistent trend this preseason. Quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. give defensive coordinators a lot to game plan for, if they're on their game. The storyline of this Browns team might be the defensive play, led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Myles Garret. It will be another test for the Patriots in the middle of the season.
Week 18 @ Miami.
The Patriots' Achilles heel in recent memory has been playing on the road against the Dolphins. With a divisional race that is expected to be closer than years past between Miami, New England, and Buffalo, this season finale could give the Patriots a playoff spot with a win, or even clinch the division. Potentially.