it still doesn't even feel real, right? I don't know about you, but my brain is currently on system overload with the fact that we've actually arrived at the first full Sunday of the 2020 regular season. Not only am I -- and likely you if you're reading this -- in a state of shock and excitement, but I'm also bracing myself for what is going to be one of the stranger sights we've seen for quite some time: Tom Brady taking the field while donning a Buccaneers uniform. Meanwhile, Bill Belichick will be throwing his hoodie up and leading New England into a new era. Strange times even for 2020 standards.
While this space has been dedicated to the latest comings and going of the 2020 New England Patriots, it seemed silly to not highlight this dramatic change as both Brady and the Pats embark on totally different paths for the first time in two decades. Of course, folks will be watching to see how each side performs without the other, creating a side battle on top of the weekly games. For the purposes of our conversation here today, it seemed only right to set the bar before both Brady and Belichick both kick off 2020.
For Brady and the Buccaneers, a similar campaign to Peyton Manning's first season in Denver was the first benchmark that came to mind. Manning led his Broncos to a 13-3 regular-season record and an AFC West title. Statistically, he completed 68.6% of his passes for 4,659 yards, 37 touchdowns, and 11 picks. In the postseason, Denver was bounced out in the Divisional Round by Baltimore.
If Brady can come close to mirroring Manning's regular season, that would certainly exceed any expectation we'd have for him in 2020. That said, Brady's Bucs will have to go deeper into the postseason than a one-and-done Manning turned in for this year to be considered a success. For reference: Manning was 36 that year and had three more seasons ahead of him in Denver. Brady -- who signed just a two-year deal with Tampa Bay -- is entering this season at age 43. The Super Bowl window is open, but it won't be for long which is why the Bucs will need to capitalize. A trip to the NFC Championship is what I'm personally expecting of Brady if he wants this first year in Tampa to be a rousing success.
As for Bill Belichick's Patriots, the bar is admittedly lower than a trip to the conference championship. For the head coach, it's about keeping New England in contention and continuing their dominance within the AFC East. The Bills will be a tough adversary, but the Dolphins and Jets are still trying to build themselves up into contention, making this a two-team race. The Patriots have won 16 of the last 17 division titles. With Cam Newton under center, there's no reason to say that Belichick shouldn't make that 17 of the last 18. Once they do that, a wild card win would be a delicious cherry on top.
Now that we have those expectations set, it's off to the races.
Before we jump into our news and notes of the week, here's how you can watch Patriots-Dolphins:
How to watch
The last time the Patriots faced the Dolphins came back in Week 17 of last year and that contest proved to be a critical one for New England. Miami came into Foxborough and stunned the Pats as Ryan Fitzpatrick hit tight end Mike Gesicki on a last-second touchdown to give the Dolphins the win and knock New England out of earning a first-round bye. The following week on Wild-Card Weekend, Tom Brady and the Patriots were bounced out of the postseason by the Tennessee Titans.
With the sour taste from that loss still lingering it'll be curious to see any added motivation by the Patriots in this game. Specifically, the matchup between Patriots corner Stephon Gilmore and Dolphins receiver DeVante Parker will be of particular interest, especially after there was some social media jabbing on Parker's end this offseason. Parker clearly got the better of Gilmore in that Week 17 matchup, catching seven passes against the reigning Defensive Player of the Year for 119 yards (30 YAC).
"The good thing about football, every year starts over. So, you know, you've got a chance to prove yourself every year," Gilmore told reporters about facing Miami. "This is the first game that you get the opportunity to go out there and prove yourself. I take that mindset each and every week no matter what happened last year, the year before. I try to prove myself each and every week and every game. I'm looking forward to it."
Newton's long-awaited debut
Step into the limelight, Cam Newton.
After duking it out over the summer, beating Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham for the starting job under center, Newton is on the doorstep of making his New England Patriots debut when his club hosts the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium.
"Excitement level is on 1,000," Newton told reporters Thursday. "I'm excited, happy. Just to get back into the rhythm of game week -- the preparation, the little nuggets that you can often forget.
"You have to remember, I've been away from football, really, for a full year. I haven't really had this whole process for a long time now, so being around, taking notes, watching film, finding out about different players each and every day, locking in. [I'm] excited about the game plan and more excited about just trying to get in a routine with the newness of the playcalling, the coaches and even the players."
How the Patriots will utilize Newton's skillset will be one of the more fascinating aspects of Week 1. While Josh McDaniels will certainly scheme up some things to highlight Newton's mobility, they should still be able to run a similar "death by a million papercuts" offense that they had with Brady. According to the CBS Sports research team, Newton completed 83.8% of his passes of under 10 air yards in 2018 -- the last season he was fully healthy -- for 15 touchdowns and just four picks. He also showed a proclivity to incorporate running backs in the passing game that year, completing 84% of his throws to back for seven touchdowns. With all that in mind, Julian Edelman and James White should continue to be heavily involved pieces in the passing attack.
Underrated Aqib Talib storyline
The Patriots nearly brought back an old friend this offseason as Aqib Talib revealed that Bill Belichick tried to sign him before the corner ultimately made the decision to retire. Specifically, Talib noted that Bill Belichick wanted him to come back to Foxborough to cover tight ends in the wake of safety Patrick Chung, who normally was called upon for that role, opted out of the season.
While it would have been a fun storyline to have the always charismatic Talib back in New England, the bigger story here is that Bill Belichick is concerned about what is ahead in 2020. By trying to bring in Talib, the head coach is tipping his hand a bit that he has doubts anyone on the current roster can cover tight ends as effectively that Chung has over his tenure. Joejuan Williams, Kyle Dugger, Terance Brooks all have the profile of squaring up against tight ends, but Belichick may not be convinced that they'll be able to get it done.
This schedule is a daunting one for New England in this regard as they'll face almost all of the elite tight ends:
Week 3: Darren Waller, Raiders
Week 4: Travis Kelce, Chiefs
Week 7: George Kittle, 49ers
Week 10: Mark Andrews, Ravens
Week 13: Hunter Henry, Chargers
Belichick won't have to wait too long to see if his concerns are warranted as Miami's Mike Gesicki is a threat in the Dolphins passing game. He caught the game-winning touchdown in Week 17 last year and if the Patriots struggle with him, they could have issues at this spot all year.
Newton's X-factor: Josh McDaniels
Playing for Bill Belichick and constantly being in the postseason and Super Bowl conversation is what makes New England a draw to a lot of players. While that can remain true for Cam Newton, the Patriots Week 1 starter revealed to reporters this week what one of the key reasons he decided to sign on with New England was to work with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
"Josh, he's in large part one of the main reasons why I came here, as well," he said. "Obviously, throughout the process, I had an opportunity to meet with the personnel and the coaches, and me and Josh have just been tied hip to the hip.
"He does a great job with teaching. You can't too much say that about a lot of coaches. A lot of coaches coach, but a lot of coaches aren't good teachers. When you really go back to the genesis of things and how they started, you go back and say, 'I've coached this person and that person and that person,' and you're blown away by his almanac of players. But yet at the same time, he makes it relatable so you can learn it in your own way."
That relationship and how it continues to blossom will be something to watch on both a macro and micro level for the Patriots. On the micro, how they'll be able to work together in 2020 will directly influence the trajectory of the team. On a bigger level, this could be a key factor in Newton possibly staying with the Patriots for the foreseeable future, as CBS Sports Jason La Canfora reported is a possibility. Even if Belichick is not long for the NFL sidelines, McDaniels is a possible head coach in waiting for the Patriots. If Newton sees it that way too, he may be more encourages to stick around.
Stephon Gilmore contract looms
The Patriots gave star corner and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore a well-deserved pay bump on Friday just before the start of the 2020 season. Gilmore can reportedly earn up to $7 million more than the $10.5 million he was originally looking at this year under this new agreement. Automatically, he'll see a $5 million raise, and for Gilmore to get that extra $2 million, he'll need to once again be named Defensive Player of the Year. If he does, he'll only be looking up at Jalen Ramsey, who inked a mega-deal with Los Angeles earlier this week.
While this is a solid gesture by New England, it is sort of a bandage that will need to be further addressed in the future. This raise is only for this season, leaving his 2021 campaign -- the final year of his contract -- still at $11.5 million in base salary. As the market for corners continues to skyrocket, Gilmore will be a prime candidate for an extension. At that point, however, Gilmore will be heading into a 2021 season where he'll turn 31 years old, which does add an interesting wrinkle to negotiations. Will the Patriots be willing to pay top dollar for an aging Gilmore even if he is still playing at the top of his game? It's certainly an interesting side story to keep in the back of your mind.
Familiar faces in Maimi
Bill Belichick's coaching tree as sprouted exponentially in recent years with Matt Patricia (Lions), Brian Flores (Dolphins) and most recently Joe Judge (Giants) all finding head coaching jobs elsewhere in the league. That has, in turn, created some competition retaining some of New England's key players once they hit the open market. That was evident this offseason as a number of now ex-Patriots elected to ink deals with Belichick disciples.
The Dolphins were the prime example of that as they were able to lure linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts in free agency along with offensive lineman Ted Karras. All three of those players contributed to Super Bowl titles during their time in New Enlgand and clearly still have a friendly rivalry with their former teammates.
"Yeah, going against them, they're familiar with me. I'm familiar with them," Van Noy, who spent three and a half seasons with the Patriotts, told reporters this week of his return to Foxborough. "I'm excited for this task. They've been talking trash the four years I've been there, so I'm excited to see if we both can back it up."
There will be a number of familiar faces on the opposing sideline during the opener, adding a little extra spice to this matchup.