Four Week 1 positives that should help Patriots in Week 2 vs. Dolphins

Four Week 1 positives that should help Patriots in Week 2 vs. Dolphins originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The New England Patriots weren't able to make enough winning plays late in Sunday's Week 1 game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Gillette Stadium and ultimately lost 25-20.

But the performance, which came against the reigning NFC champs and one of the three best teams in the NFL, did include lots of encouraging signs for the Patriots on both sides of the ball.

“We definitely feel like we can play with any team," Patriots wide receiver Kendrick Bourne said after the loss. "Just keep improving every day. Not feeling like we’ve arrived, just feeling like we are playing our game, playing within the scheme, making the plays when they come. I think that will make us better.”

The Patriots defense was the star of the show. The Eagles averaged 28.1 points per game and 5.8 yards per play last season. Their offense scored 18 points with 4.1 yards per play against the Patriots, who also forced two turnovers and made potential MVP candidate Jalen Hurts look rather pedestrian most of the afternoon.

New England will need a similar or better defensive effort to emerge victorious in Week 2 when it hosts the rival Miami Dolphins on NBC's "Sunday Night Football." The Dolphins beat the Los Angeles Chargers 36-34 on the road in Week 1. Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw for 466 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He's now the co-favorite for MVP with Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

Let's examine four positives from the Patriots' performance in Week 1 that should help them Sunday night against the Dolphins.

Christian Gonzalez held his own

The Patriots' first-round rookie cornerback played well in his NFL debut. He finished second on the team with seven tackles, plus one sack, one QB hit and one pass defensed.

Gonzalez spent a lot of time covering elite Eagles wide receiver A.J. Brown, who put up respectable stats (seven receptions for 79 yards) but didn't make a major impact and was held out of the end zone. Brown racked up 17 yards per catch last season. He averaged just 11.3 yards per catch on Sunday. Gonzalez also broke up a pass on a fourth down stop with two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter that gave the Patriots offense the ball with a chance to win the game.

The University of Oregon product will face another tough test Sunday when he likely matches up against Tyreek Hill or Jaylen Waddle -- two of the most talented wideouts in the league.

Hill torched the Chargers defense for 11 catches, 215 yards and two touchdowns. Waddle had four receptions for 78 yards.

Gonzalez's ability to shut down or limit the effectiveness of either Hill or Waddle could play a significant factor in whether the Patriots win Sunday night.

Even with a better offense than last year, New England isn't built to win a high-scoring matchup. Preventing Hill and Waddle from dominating is critical to ensuring the game remains competitive, and Gonzalez will play a pivotal role in that mission.

Mac Jones and the offense looked better

The Patriots offense was horrendous last season when Matt Patricia was the play-caller and de facto offensive coordinator and Joe Judge was the quarterbacks coach. Bill O'Brien took over both of those jobs in the offseason and the immediate results of his system were impressive.

Jones set career highs with 34 pass completions and 52 pass attempts. He ended up with 316 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, which was returned for an Eagles touchdown. Sure, he made a couple mistakes and wasn't able to lead the team to a game-winning score late in the fourth quarter. But the NFL season is a marathon, not a sprint. The final result is most important, but so is the process.

Jones threw for 300-plus yards twice last season. He threw three or more TD passes only once. He's already done both after one game this season.

The Patriots got nothing from tight ends last season, but O'Brien got them more involved in Week 1. Hunter Henry caught five passes for 58 yards and a touchdown, while Mike Gesicki caught all three passes that came his way and picked up 36 yards. The Patriots had only one game last season (Oct. 16 at Browns) where tight ends Jonnu Smith and Henry combined for 90-plus receiving yards. Henry and Gesicki totaled 94 in Week 1.

The running game wasn't amazing versus the Eagles, averaging 3.5 yards per carry. But both Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott played better as the game wore on.

The Patriots offense isn't firing on all cylinders and there's still plenty of room for improvement. But this unit showed a lot of encouraging signs Sunday, and that should give the team and its fans confidence that the Week 2 showdown versus the Dolphins won't be a one-sided blowout.

Kendrick Bourne is finally a focal point again

Bourne's usage was significantly lower last season with Patricia running the offense. It was a perplexing situation given the veteran wideout's success with the Patriots in 2021. It was expected that Bourne would play an important role in the offense with new offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien in charge this season, and that's exactly what happened Sunday.

Bourne tied for the team lead with six receptions and 64 receiving yards Sunday. He also scored two touchdowns on his team-high 11 targets.

JuJu Smith-Schuster wasn't much of a factor against the Eagles. DeVante Parker didn't play due to injury. Bourne was the only Patriots wide receiver with more than four catches and 40 yards.

The Patriots need at least one of their veteran wideouts to give consistent production each week, and Bourne is the overwhelming favorite to play that role. He had a great training camp, an impressive preseason and a fantastic season debut. Bourne is dialed in right now, and they'll need him to make plays against a Dolphins defense that isn't elite.

Third-down defense showed improvement

Getting off the field on third down is essential for any defense, especially against explosive offenses like the Eagles and Dolphins.

The Patriots defense ranked 21st in third down defense (40.3 percent) in 2022. They were much better Sunday.

The Eagles were the fourth-best team in the league on third down last season by converting 46 percent of the time. They were just 4-for-13 (30.7 percent) on third down against the Patriots defense. One of those missed opportunities came halfway through the first quarter when Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts was sacked by Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon inside the red zone. Philly had to settle for a field goal.

New England's defense held the Eagles to 0-for-3 on third down in the fourth quarter, which gave the offense a chance to win the game.

The Dolphins offense was ranked 24th on third down last year with a 36.2 percent conversion rate, but in two games against the Patriots in 2022, that unit converted 41.6 percent of its third downs. Miami was better against the Chargers in Week 1 with a 44.4 percent (4-for-9) success rate.

Third-down defense will be a massive factor for the Patriots in Sunday night's matchup with the Dolphins. New England cannot allow Miami to chew up the clock and wear down the defense with long touchdown drives.