The Miami Dolphins held off a furious rally by the New England Patriots in the fourth quarter of last night's Sunday Night Football. They took home the 24-17 win. The Dolphins were in control for large parts of the game despite several on and off-field highlight plays by the Patriots. New England came up just short in the end on this dramatic fourth down play:
If I had a nickel for every time the Patriots lost a game by literal inches on a fourth down this season, I'd have two nickels.
Which isn't a lot, but it's weird it happened twice.pic.twitter.com/PFhbwHTmIY
— Schlasser (@UrinatingTree) September 18, 2023
With their win, the Dolphins improved to 2-0, and the Patriots fell to 0-2. The Dolphins took another step forward on their path to contention in the AFC, while the Patriots were left looking for answers again in the post-Tom Brady era. In fact, against the Dolphins specifically, it's been a struggle since Brady left for Tampa Bay. While Tua Tagovailoa has been in and out of the starting lineups with injuries over the past few years, when he's played, he's owned the Patriots. Tagolvailoa is currently 5-0 against Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, an unprecedented feat in the Belichick era. His dominance over such a successful and accomplished coach puts him in rarified air all-time. Let's look closely at Tagovailoa's success against Belichick and the Pats.
Tagovailoa vs. Belichick by the numbers
Yes, Tua Tagovaioa has now beaten Bill Belichick five times out of five. However, while the Dolphins quarterback has grown at an impressive rate every year, he hasn't put together any eye-watering numbers against the Patriots. In the past five games in this rivalry, Tagovailoa has been healthy for all finished pretty close (within two scores): 22-12, 17-16, 33-24, 20-7, 24-17.
Across those games, Tagovailoa has thrown for four touchdowns and three interceptions. Encouragingly for Dolphins fans, his best two performances have been the most recent games against the Patriots. Last year, in his only healthy game against the Patriots, Tagovailoa threw for 270 yards and a touchdown. While last night, he threw for 249 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.
These pedestrian underlying numbers aren't super surprising. Belichick is known for making rookie and young quarterbacks struggle. While Tagovailoa hasn't been able to crack the Belichick-led defense fully, he has been able to do enough with the team around him to find success. He's been reasonably efficient as a passer and hasn't gotten into much trouble with turnovers. That combination has allowed the Dolphins to dictate more of the game against the Patriots than other teams with young, mistake-prone QBs often can. But if Tagovailoa hasn't been the engine behind these wins, how have the Dolphins tipped the scale of this rivalry in their favor?
Dolphins vs. Patriots defensive dominance
The biggest indicator of why the Dolphins have owned the Patriots in the five games Tagovailoa has started is the defense. More specifically, turnovers. Yes, Tagovailoa's mark of four touchdowns and three interceptions doesn't inspire a ton of confidence, but it does show low variance low risk play by the Dolphins QB. He is not putting very many drives at risk for the Dolphins. The combination of Mac Jones and Cam Newton for the Patriots have put up the same four TD, three INT mark as Tagovailoa has. The real difference is the fumbles.
Across the five games Tagovailoa has started against the Patriots, the Pats have fumbled the ball 12 times, and lost it nine of those times. The Dolphins' defense have been all over Patriot ballcarriers. And while the passing game's turnovers and TDs have been equal, the fumbles are not at all on the same level. In fact, the Dolphins have not lost a single fumble to the Patriots during this stretch.
Dolphins vs. Patriots rivalry history
The Dolphins' recent dominance titled the balance of power in this AFC East blood feud back in their favor. Right now, the Dolphins lead the all-time series 61-55. New England flipped the historical script on Miami under the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era of dominance. The Patriots won roughly two-thirds of their meetings from 2001-2019. During that time, the Dolphins did notably give the Pats more trouble than a lot of other teams did. Most notably, the Miami Miracle lateral play where the Dolphins pulled off last-second heroics back in 2018.
Now that the Patriots are simply good-average in the absence of Brady, are we about to witness a new era of this rivalry? It would certainly appear so at first glance given Tagovailoa's ascendency. And considering the Patriots turnover woes. But as seen above, these have all been close games. There isn't much separating these teams when they play. And Belichick is one disciplined game away from snapping Tagovailoa's streak against him. In fact, without Tagovailoa for the second game in the season series last year, the Patriots beat the Dolphins. The Patriots won the turnover battle 2-0 and the game 23-21. So in theory, it's just a matter of time before Belichick gets his revenge.