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OutKick Game Of The Week: Dolphins At Patriots

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There’s a meme out there on social media that features Spider-Man and Spider-Man. And it doesn’t matter if one is Tobey Maguire and the other is Tom Holland, what matters is both characters are staring at each other, pointing as if saying, “You, no you.”

That’s what you have with the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins.

Their differences at their roots are stark because the Dolphins were — with respects to the Pittsburgh Steelers — the dominant franchise of the 1970s, and the Patriots have been dominant most of the past 20 years.

But both are beyond that greatness now.

And both are trying a grasp at new greatness by operating in much the same manner, applying much the same philosophies, running much the same defense, relying on the advice of the same familiar coach in Alabama to find their starting quarterbacks.

But just like there’s only one true Spider-Man, there’s probably only one playoff spot available for these two mirror-image football teams in 2021.

The Buffalo Bills, you see, have an established quarterback and established culture and established playoff pedigree. So it’s pretty much established they’re going to win the AFC East, barring some catastrophe.

That leaves the Dolphins and Patriots chasing second place and a wild-card spot in the postseason.

That means each game these two play has playoff implications — even when that game is the first one of the NFL’s longest regular-season ever.

And what do these two teams bring to these matchups, the first of which is Sunday in Foxboro, MA.?

Looks like they bring a mirror.

Start with the quarterbacks. The Dolphins made Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa their first-round pick in 2020 and, team captain or not, it’s his offense. No doubt about that.

“Just because you’re the quarterback … doesn’t mean you have to be the captain or you have to be this or that,” said receiver Mack Hollins, who this week was voted a Miami captain while Tagovailoa was not. “Tua is an excellent leader, an exceptional leader.

“The transformation he’s made from last year to this year is incredible. I think you all have seen that in how calm he feels in the pocket now versus last year. If you put a clip side-by-side, the changes he’s made are really night and day. That goes to leadership. It’s not like his arm magically got 10-times better. It goes to his confidence, his ability to lead and feel comfortable in the huddle.”

The Patriots, in the hands of Tom Brady from 2001 to 2019, are steered by rookie quarterback Mac Jones.

Like Tagovailoa in Miami, Jones was drafted out of Alabama after winning a national championship. Like Tagovailoa in Miami, Alabama coach Nick Saban recommended Jones to the Patriots and that went a long way because Saban’s word is gold within New England’s organization as it is within Miami’s organization.

And like Tagovailoa in Miami, there’s uncertainty how Jones is going to play. Everyone is kind of holding their breath while swearing the guy is a great worker and great leader and therefore bound to be a great quarterback.

“If a play doesn’t go exactly right or how we drew it up in the meeting room and we get out there and it doesn’t go exactly as planned, he’ll on his own, without coach saying anything say, ‘Do it over,’ ” offensive tackle Trent Brown said of Jones. “And with some authority.

“That’s why I was saying, as a young guy, that’s pretty cool to see.”

The quarterbacks matchup this game is interesting because they’re both young and former college teammates and all that. But part of their success (or failure) in this game will be determined by how they handle the opposing defense, which they should be very familiar seeing.

Because these two defenses are practically mirror images.

Dolphins coach Brian Flores, hired by Miami after he spent 14 years in New England, has brought defensive coordinator Josh Boyer and Belichick’s defensive philosophy to South Florida.

“It’s some of the same stuff our defense does,” Brown said. “So we’ve been getting a little work at it since April as a unit.”

And these two franchises haven’t just borrowed each other’s schemes. They’re borrowing each others, well, almost everything else.

The Dolphins signed linebacker Kyle Van Noy in 2020 when the Patriots let him walk in free agency.

The Patriots signed Van Noy in 2021 when the Dolphins cut him.

Same thing happened with offensive lineman Ted Karras. And running back Brandon Bolden.

The Dolphins drafted Davon Godchaux. The Patriots signed him this offseason as a free agent.

Safety Adrian Colbert was waived by the Dolphins in August 2020, and waived by the Patriots in August 2021.

The Patriots had Eric Rowe. He’s Miami’s starting strong safety now.

The Patriots had Jason McCourty. He’s Miami’s free safety.

The Patriots had defensive lineman Adam Butler last year. The Dolphins have him this year.

The Dolphins cut receiver Malcolm Perry this summer. One guess which team claimed him …

Oh, and did I mention when the Dolphins needed a senior director in public relations last offseason they hired from the Patriots staff?

What we’re looking at with these two teams is the Patriot Way and the Patriot Way South. And it extends beyond people riding a pipeline between teams.

This is also starting to look like a shared philosophy for trying to get ahead.

The Dolphins, flush with salary cap space and an owner willing to spend, spent an NFL record $240 million in free agency during the 2020 offseason. They guaranteed approximately $120 million of that money in an effort to rise from 5-11 to 10-6.

The Patriots, flush with salary cap space and an owner willing to spend, spent a whopping $280 million in free agency with an NFL record $159 million in guaranteed money in the ’21 offseason. New England spent $70 million in guaranteed money the first seven hours of free agency alone.

The obvious intent in New England is to avoid a repeat of last year’s third-place finish in the AFC East.

What’s left unsaid as both these teams try to spend and draft and scratch and claw to compete in the same division is neither have Tom Brady nor Dan Marino any more.

The Dolphins haven’t been the same since Marino last played because they were 147-93 during his 17 seasons and 159-177 in the 21 seasons since.

The Patriots, an astounding 219-64 during Brady’s 20 seasons, last season not only fell from playoff contention but authored a losing 7-9 season without their longtime quarterback.

The similarities are uncanny but this is certain: At some point these two teams the difference in their reflections as they chase the same playoff spot — because there can only be one Spider-Man.

Twitter: @armandosalguero

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Written by Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero has covered the NFL since 1990 for the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and ESPN. He was a 2016 Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 columnist. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and AP All-Pro team voter.

One Comment

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  1. Flores came from the Belichick tree and has the same general coaching philosophy. Their defenses are similar in the sense that they play a lot more man but the Dolphins blitz a lot more than the Patriots.
    Tua and Jones are as different as two QB can be. Tua is a mobile QB who is extremely accurate. Joens a pocket passer whose main asset is that he avoids mistakes.
    Will be a really interesting game.

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