(CBS Miami) -- The New England Patriots have dominated the AFC East for two decades, winning the division 11 straight seasons. During that stretch, the Miami Dolphins posted a .500 or better record just three times. They last won the division in 2008.
But this season is already shaping up to be very different for many reasons, mostly related to the current COVID-19 pandemic. The NFL Draft was remote. In-person off-season activities were scaled way back. And preseason was canceled outright. All of this will affect teams' ability to coalesce on the field and gauge their early-season opponents.
Another reason is the potential shift in the balance of power in the AFC East. In New England, Tom Brady is no longer the Pats' quarterback, having signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In Miami, the Dolphins welcome a bunch of quality new players, both from the NFL Draft and from free agency. (The Buffalo Bills and New York Jets should also show improvement, although how much remains unclear.)
The Patriots and Dolphins square off in Foxboro to open the season. Week 1 will be the first time we get to see a Patriots team led by Cam Newton. Newton was the NFL's MVP in 2015, the season he led the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl. He brings a new skill set that the Patriots' offense hasn't seen in some time. And it stands to reason that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will be able to open up the playbook a little more.
Sony Michel should lead the way this week in what should be a strong running game, with Damien Harris hurt. Rex Burkhead will get his fair share of touches as well, and James White remains a receiving threat out of the backfield. Newton will also have the benefit of the sure-handed Julian Edelman over the middle on passing downs. The big unknown is how much game action it takes to get the Newton in sync with the rest of the Patriots' offense.
The Patriots defense was one of the NFL's best last season, giving up a league-low 4,414 yards. The strong stats belie the fact that teams like the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans were able to push them around. And now the unit is set to be worse, having lost Dont'a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton in the off-season. The defensive backfield remains strong, but they may struggle too without enough help in front of them.
The Dolphins, on the other hand, are a team on the rise. Boosted by strong hauls in the NFL Draft and free agency, this team is set to be much improved. The only question is when.
"The one thing I think about the Dolphins is they have a chance to make a really big leap," says CBS Sports lead NFL analyst Tony Romo. "They're probably going to be a year way from making the leap to possibly being able to contend for a championship. When I say that, teams have done it before. When you get six picks in the top 70, and what they've done in free agency... I think everything that the Dolphins have done, without evaluating the talent they've drafted in the draft... To me, you have to get offensive linemen, and you have to be able to cover. And if you can get your defensive line to play hard."
The Dolphins added their quarterback of the future, Tua Tagovailoa as one of their three first-round picks. He'll be learning from the sidelines to start the season with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center. But fellow first-rounders offensive tackle Austin Jackson and cornerback Noah Igbinoghene should contribute immediately.
The team was also active in free agency, particularly helping themselves on defense. Byron Jones gives them a shutdown corner. Defensive end Shaq Lawson comes over from the Buffalo Bills to boost their rush off the edge. And Kyle Van Noy gives them a solid all-purpose linebacker.
Teams with some continuity in terms of coaching and players will have the advantage early in the season. The Patriots remain under Bill Belichick's leadership, and the Dolphins under Brian Flores'. But the addition (and subtraction) of key personnel will could hurt both of these teams early on. Both will need time to come together, having not benefited from a preseason.
This Sunday will start to get a sense of how it will all shake out. According to SportsLine's Wizard Of Odds Kenny White, these teams are "very evenly matched. The Dolphins-Patriots game opened with the Patriots minus seven. There are still sevens out in the market, but there are 6 1/2s as well. So with a 50-50 split in tickets, it looks like the professionals are leaning a little bit to the Dolphins Week 1 at plus seven."
The Dolphins play the Patriots Sunday, September 13 @1:00 pm ET on CBS.
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