Patriots-Dolphins preview: A new year but likely the same old Patriots vs. Miami

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Curran: If the Patriots were going to get better, it would've happened by now originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Sometime, maybe a decade or so down the line, someone may look back at the 2022 NFL standings and think to themselves, "Hmmmm ... heckuva year in the AFC East. The Patriots and Dolphins had pretty similar seasons."

No arguing that surface assessment. Right now, Miami’s 8-7 and the Patriots are 7-8. And when you go a little below the surface, it still carries some weight. After midseason apexes record-wise -- the Patriots at 6-4, Miami at 8-3 -- both franchises are in late-season freefall. Miami’s lost four straight. New England’s lost four-of-five with their lone win coming against Arizona when Kyler Murray went out early in the first quarter.

But one thing that’s been present in Miami all season that never really visited New England? Optimism.

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Toppling teams like the Bills and Ravens, getting every bit of bang for the bucks spent on Tyreek Hill (113 catches, 1,632 yards, seven TDs) and seeing Tua Tagovailoa flourish a bit (25 TDs, eight picks, leading the league in yards per attempt, yards per catch and quarterback rating ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts) has brought a general sense the Dolphins are very much on the right road under first-year head coach Mike McDaniel.

In New England, even the good times came with caveats. Back-to-back dominations of the Lions and Browns came with Bailey Zappe at quarterback, fueling the embarrassing Zappe Fever craze. Demolitions of the Jets, Colts and Jets were with walking asterisks Zach Wilson and Sam Ehlinger running the opposition.

In many ways, the way the Patriots look now at the dawn of a new year about as they looked when the two teams met on September 11 to start the season in Miami.

They still stink offensively. Their defense still is anywhere from good to remarkable and will do something to make the final score look better than the actual product they put on the field for 60 minutes. They're a competitive team but not a "good" team.

Imagine being Mac Jones, former Alabama quarterback and a guy who probably feels he’s at least a touch better than Tua (Waddle and DeVonta Smith both felt the same as recently as 18 months ago) and you’re sitting there with nine touchdown passes and eight picks. It’s a coin flip if you’ll get to 10 touchdown passes and you probably won’t throw for 3,000 yards.

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The bill of goods he was sold in the spring and summer? The "trust us, it’ll work out ..." assurances made directly or inferred? All came crashing down and Jones is under the rubble. Now the "Is he the guy or just a guy ..." debate is in full force. All this for a guy who, through 14 weeks last season, was the odds-on favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Look back at the opener. Their possessions went interception, punt, fumble, punt, halftime, touchdown on a 15-play drive, punt, downs, fumble. They lost 20-7. The interception was thrown when Jones tried to go up top to DeVante Parker. The first fumble was a strip sack of Jones when Trent Brown just missed an assignment and turned into a touchdown. Miami’s first score of the game, a field goal, came after the Patriots jumped on a fourth-and-1. And their other first-half touchdown came on a defensive breakdown on a fourth-and-7 at the Patriots’ 42 with 24 seconds left in the half.

Missed assignments, penalties, defensive breakdowns and offensive inefficiency are still here almost four months later.

And yet, people still think when the Patriots blunder as they did the past two weeks at the end of games, that this is not "Patriots football." The Patriots are two-point favorites heading into this one. Even with their secondary decimated by injury and the fact they’ve only scored more than two offensive touchdowns twice this season and have seven times been held to one touchdown or fewer, the idea that a Tua-less Miami team is worse than the Patriots holds true with the general public.

Maybe -- hope against hope -- the light goes on this week. Though you would have expected it to have come on last week after the Vegas embarrassment and the Patriots instead fell into a 22-0 hole by halftime, faith remains that a Bill Belichick-coached team will perform like everyone is accustomed to it performing.

This Patriots' aspirations of finishing above .500 in 2022 rest on the outcome of this 16th game of the season. Lose and the best they can do it 8-9 if they win in Buffalo. Win and the slim chance of a postseason appearance remains.

But if it hasn’t changed by now, why should we expect it to on Sunday? Just because the calendar flipped?

Not persuasive enough.

Dolphins 23, Patriots 16