The New England Patriots are 1-0 and the Miami Dolphins are 0-1 because of the kicking game.
At Arizona last Sunday, the Cardinals’ Chandler Catanzaro missed a 47-yard field goal try in the final minute. The snap was low, disrupting the timing of what already was a difficult kick, and the Patriots escaped with a 23-21 victory.
Of course, Bill Belichick had his special teams all buttoned up for the season opener, not because Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski were missing and absolutely everything had to go right but because Belichick is a details guy, no matter the occasion.
That’s how you wind up with Stephen Gostkowski being named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week, and that’s how the Patriots have an early edge in the AFC East standings over Miami and everybody else.
Gostkowski made all three of his field goal tries, including one from 53 yards, plus a couple of extra points. That last part really counts, too, now that the NFL has pushed conversion kicks all the way out to 33 yards.
As a bonus, New England’s defense got the benefit of Gostkowski’s excellent kickoffs. The Cardinals’ average starting position after kickoffs was their own 18-yard line.
To recap, Patriots good in all areas of the game. Patriots good, period. Year after year.
Darren Rizzi, the Dolphins’ assistant head coach and special teams coordinator, knows all of this. He also knows how badly his unit cost Miami in Sunday’s season-opening loss at Seattle.
When Cassius Marsh got a hand up to block Andrew Franks’ field-goal try in the fourth quarter, the Dolphins blew a chance to tie the score at 6-6. They also blew an opportunity to score following a fumble by Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson at the Seattle 36. In a game where the Miami defense was hit hard by injuries and generally gassed by being on the field too long, this was particularly demoralizing.
Should Franks have gotten that kick up quicker? Did he attack it too casually, recognizing that the distance was shorter even than an extra point? Did the Miami kick-protection team get a little sloppy on its blocking? Any or all of these could apply, and any or all of these could crush the Dolphins’ chances of pulling off an upset at Foxborough, where every point is precious.
For that matter, Franks only got 16 field-goal tries in 2016, making 13 of them. The way Miami often struggles to move the ball, there simply are no opportunities to waste in any game. On Sunday, Franks made one from 41 yards but got blocked on a gimme. Ugh.
On the plus side at Seattle, Miami rookie Jakeem Grant showed what an unpredictable and potentially explosive return man he can be. A couple of times he was thrown down like a rag doll on punt returns, which certainly can happen to a 5-foot-7 man in a Godzilla-sized NFL. On the opening kickoff of the second half, however, Grant caught the ball in the end zone and shot 45 yards to the Miami 41-yard line.
The Dolphins didn’t do anything with it, going three-and-out and calling out Matt Darr for one of his seven punts. That won’t do, either, but Grant will have Gostkowski working hard on Sunday to keep kickoffs in the corners or out of sight.
It’s all part of the kicking game, and it’s why the AFC East standings already look the way they do. Frustratingly familiar.