MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has been in a situation similar to Mac Jones' current predicament.
Miami made Tagovailoa the fifth overall pick in the 2020 draft after he led Alabama to a national title. But his NFL career started slowly, and he was heavily criticized during his first two seasons.
Jones, another national championship winner for the Crimson Tide, is facing similar adversity in his third year as New England's starter. He has shouldered blame for the Patriots' 2-5 start, and New England faces another challenge when it visits Tagovailoa and the Dolphins (5-2) on Sunday.
Tagovailoa's solution was to tune out outside commentary as much as possible and focus on himself. Jones is following a similar script.
“A lot of times, people will look at you maybe when you’re not all the way up, you’re kind of not doing too good, and they want to see how you respond,” Jones said. “That’s what I focus on — is the response. I stick to my process, adjust my process, and then I try and, you know, carry that onto the field. So regardless of everything around you, when you stick to the process, it usually turns out good eventually.”
In his fourth year, Tagovailoa is leading one of the NFL's best offenses: The Dolphins lead the league in total offense, red zone efficiency and yards per play. And Jones carried the Patriots to a 29-25 upset of the Buffalo Bills in Week 7.
Jones and the Patriots hope to build off last week's win. They are last in the AFC East and another loss would further jeopardize their playoff hopes.
The biggest question for the Dolphins is the status of All-Pro receiver Tyreek Hill, who was limited Thursday and did not practice Wednesday because of a hip injury. Hill indicated Thursday he plans to play.
“I just wanted some attention, man,” Hill said, “because my mom wouldn't talk to me yesterday, so I needed some attention from somebody. I'm good though.”
Hill has not missed a game since Miami acquired him from Kansas City before the 2022 season. He leads the NFL with 902 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.
If Hill can't play, that would likely mean a bigger role for Jaylen Waddle, Miami's second-leading receiver with 30 catches and 359 yards.
“I think people forget about the things that Jaylen Waddle can do," Tagovailoa said, “the things that he already has done for our team since his rookie year. And there’s a lot of other guys I think that you can’t sleep on.”
The Dolphins struggled last week in a loss to the Eagles and another former Alabama QB, Jalen Hurts. They hope to regain their form ahead of a Week 9 game against the Chiefs, who will be just the third team they've faced with a winning record.
The Patriots have shown improvement since Miami beat them 24-17 in Week 2.
“They get better as the season progresses,” coach Mike McDaniel said. “I think that is the formula. I think that’s the end-all for NFL football. ... They focus on fundamentals. They do a good job tuning out the noise. I see a team that just last week was an example.”
FLIP THE FIELD
Whether facing long or short fields, the Dolphins have consistently found ways to get to the end zone. But the Patriots had success in Week 2 when forcing Miami to begin drives deep in its own territory.
The Dolphins started inside their own 20-yard line four times in that game. Their best drive in those instances ended with a field goal. They punted twice and had a field goal blocked.
Three of those Dolphins possessions followed punts by Patriots rookie Bryce Baringer, who has been pinning teams deep consistently. He enters Sunday tied with Jacksonville’s Logan Cooke for the NFL lead with 18 punts inside the 20.
Patriots receiver Demario Douglas debuted in Week 1 against Philadelphia with four catches for 40 yards. He had a fumble that led to a touchdown in the loss to Miami. He then saw his progress stunted in Week 5 when he left early in the loss to New Orleans with a concussion that also kept him out the following week.
Douglas bounced back last week with a season-high four catches for 54 yards.
“I’ve known of him since I was little. I know that he’s always fought an uphill battle,” Jones said. “He always talks about his size, right? He’s always going to keep fighting, and I know that about him. I can be hard on him and try to raise that standard because I know where he comes from. I know how hard he works, and he’s going to bring it every week.”
PROTECTING HOME TURF
The Dolphins are 15-2 at home since Nov. 7, 2021, which is Miami's best 17-game stretch at Hard Rock Stadium since the venue opened in 1987. In their three home games this season, the Dolphins have outscored opponents 143-57.
“Well, I think for one, it’s the fans that we have,” Tagovailoa said. “The fans definitely make the atmosphere one to remember as far as third downs, they’re really loud. And it’s when the guys go out there and we’re all warming up. The guys see the crowd, the guys are playing catch with the fans, we get to see our families. It’s just an atmosphere that we feel comfortable in.”
AP Sports Writer Kyle Hightower in Foxborough, Massachusetts, contributed to this report.
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