By Norm Elrod

The New England Patriots have owned the AFC East for what seems like forever. In actuality, the dominance only dates back to around the start of the century. Of course, a couple of other important things happened in 2000: Bill Belichick became the Patriots’ head coach, and the team drafted Tom Brady.

Fast-forward 18 years and 15 division titles — not to mention five Super Bowl Championships — and the Pats are once again favored to win the AFC East and make a run at the Super Bowl. But the team’s 1-2 start has them locked in a three-way tie with the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets and trailing the undefeated Miami Dolphins.

What’s going on in New England? And can they get it going in time to stay relevant this season? The short answers are: a few things and probably. Beating the Dolphins this Sunday would be a good place to start.

Quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots looks to throw the ball against the Detroit Lions during the first half at Ford Field on September 23, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan.

Tom Brady (Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The Dolphins have been a bit of a surprise so far, jumping out to 3-0 record. The wins have come against the Tennessee Titans, Oakland Raiders and New York Jets, hardly the NFL’s best. The Titans have managed just three touchdowns so far, though they did upset the Jaguars with three field goals, and the Raiders and Jets are a combined 1-5. Still, an undefeated record puts Miami in elite company with the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs, even if they don’t quite measure up.

Coming off a 6-10 campaign, the Dolphins entered this season with a few uncertainties. Starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill was retuning from a torn ACL, which ended his 2017 season before it even started. Line play, on both sides of the ball, had been suspect. And the team replaced a fair bit of talent in the offseason.

Gase’s Dolphins are now better built to win with Tannehill, and so far the results back that up. The QB comes in with 121.8 QB rating so far — fourth best in the NFL. He’s completed 73% of his passes, with seven TDs against only two interceptions. While the play selection is balanced, most of team’s production has come through the air. New arrivals Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson have certainly been a factor.

Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Miami Dolphins before the snap during the third quarter against the Oakland Raiders at Hard Rock Stadium on September 23, 2018 in Miami, Florida.

Ryan Tannehill (Photo Credit: Mark Brown/Getty Images)

Despite Tannehill’s promising start, the Dolphins aren’t exactly an offensive juggernaut. They’re averaging 25 points per game, which is fine. But the team ranks poorly — and trails opponents — in multiple categories, including time of possession (30th) and third down conversions (27th). And the running game, thought to be a strength going into the season, hasn’t produced.

The Dolphins’ defense has seemingly improved, even if they remain untested by a decent offense. Defensive end Robert Quinn, another new arrival, has pressured quarterbacks, despite having only one sack. The run defense has held opponents to 3.3 yards per carry and allowed only two TDs. Their red zone defense is among the best in the NFL.

But can the Dolphins stop the depleted and lackluster Patriots? The Pats haven’t lost to the Phins in Foxboro in a decade, but they look eminently beatable so far this year.

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New England doesn’t have the strongest roster right now, with an unproven offensive line, a poor pass rush and a dearth of game-breakers on both sides of the ball. Gronk is still Gronk, but even he has looked a little flatfooted. Julian Edelman and possibly Josh Gordon will suit up in Week 5, elevating their offensive attack, but that won’t help Brady this week.

Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots is seen during the second half against the Jacksonville Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field on September 16, 2018 in Jacksonville, Florida.

Rob Gronkowski (Photo Credit: Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

The GOAT, lacking the weapons, hasn’t lived up to the nickname in 2018. His 644 passing yards put him at 25th among quarterbacks. His QB rating of 93.9 is below his career QB rating of 97.5. The Patriots, as a team, are averaging 19 points per game (also 25th). To be fair, they’ve also faced a stellar Jaguars defense and a Lions team coached by former Pats defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.

The Patriots offense can’t stay on the field on third down, converting less than 29% of the time. The defense can’t get off the field, allowing opponents to convert about 50% of the time. So it’s no surprise then that they’re losing the time of possession battle, ranking 28th in the NFL, with an average of 27:03.

Opposing offenses are averaging over 400 yards per game. In the last two weeks, the Jaguars and Lions marched up and down the field, seemingly at will. It’s one thing to give up yards to a Matthew Stafford-led offense. It’s quite another to get torched by Blake Bortles.

So what does all this mean for Dolphins and Patriots in Foxboro on Sunday?

Belichick tends to treat the first few games of the season like an extended preseason, more time to work out issues in an actual game setting. Many times in recent history the Patriots have followed a subpar September with a run of wins that carries them into the postseason. This feels like the beginning of 2018’s version of that.

The Dolphins pass defense isn’t very good, which should let Belichick, Brady and company work things out on offense. On the other side of the ball, the Pats will probably welcome back DT Trey Flowers from a concussion. Flowers, their best defender, would shore up the D-line and help put a little pressure on Tannehill.

The Patriots will get their season going in earnest in Week 4 with a win at home over the Dolphins. As SportsLine analyst Galin Dragiev sees it:

Miami is a notoriously bad road team and I expect them to continue struggling here against the Patriots. New England has had a bad time on the offensive side of the ball this season and a home matchup against a team giving up the fourth most passing yards per game will be a good chance of pace. The variance of the first few weeks has this line too close. I’m laying the points with the stronger team that’s also playing at home.

Go to SportsLine for picks on every NFL game.

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