FILE - New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton walks to the field for an NFL football training camp practice, Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, in Foxborough, Mass. They are the oddest of odd couples, Bill Belichick and Cam Newton. But this season of transition has brought them together in New England, where they've both got something to prove.(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, Pool, File)

The New England Patriots got knocked out of the playoffs earlier than usual last season with their loss to the Titans in the wild-card round.

But looking at the big picture, the death knell was actually struck the week before.

That’s when the Dolphins pulled off an embarrassing 27-24 upset of Bill Belichick’s team in the regular-season finale. The toll of that defeat was significant, as the Patriots lost their grip on one of the top two playoff seeds along with the accompanying first-round bye.

Putting up a stinker in that game, in that moment, with Tom Brady essentially having one foot out the door, spoke volumes about the state of the team.

It was a precursor of what was to come.

As it was, the Patriots had trouble beating the good teams in the AFC (Baltimore, Houston, Kansas City), but now, they couldn’t get past the dregs of the AFC East.

Although, watching that game, it was pretty apparent which team was on the rise, and which was in decline.

The Dolphins sent a message they were no longer going to be a pushover, and having former Belichick lieutenant Brian Flores at the helm merely added more salt to the wound.

What went down in late December between the two teams ultimately sets the stage for the drama that lies ahead, as the Patriots open the 2020 season with the Dolphins on their dance card.

Basically, they have a chance to put Flores’ up-and-coming team back in its place. Either that, or the Fins will continue to poke at an NFL giant that has lost its footing.

That’s the primary storyline on the table as the Patriots usher in a new era without Brady.

The rematch with the Dolphins, a sleeper pick to win the division, will either bring the Patriots’ decline into greater focus, or, provide some hope going forward in 2020.

Patriots top corner Stephon Gilmore is counting on the latter.

“It’s a new year, Miami’s in our way,” Gilmore said Monday during a video conference. “We have to prove ourselves. We have to go out and try and do it against them.”

We’ll see if Belichick’s genius is enough to overcome his current team’s shortcomings. And, we’ll get an idea if a quarterback not named Brady can make up for all the warts.

We’ll see if the Cam Newton experiment has legs. Or if the Patriots haven’t solved the quarterback riddle just yet.

Dealing with the Dolphins is a good place to start.

Even with Ryan Fitzpatrick, who pulled out his Fitzmagic act to beat the Patriots, being named the starter, they have a decidedly different look.

Miami spent a ton of cash on an army of free agents, including several former ring-winners with the Patriots. Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and Ted Karras all jumped ship, signing lucrative deals to join Flores. Their arrival, along with the drafting of Tua Tagovailoa, give the Fins a new vibe.

But it’s the same deal with the Patriots. They no longer have the greatest quarterback of all time running the show. They merely have a former NFL MVP.

During an appearance on WEEI Monday, Newton said he didn’t feel any added pressure replacing a legend, and having to fill the void left by Brady. He knows what’s expected in New England.

Said Newton: “I think the preparation that’s put forth in where I have been in my career — the dark moments, the low moments, and obviously the high moments — has prepared me for this.”

The Patriots, who crushed the Fish 43-0 in their first meeting last season, aren’t likely to underestimate their opponents this time around.

The Pats know what lies ahead. Flores is clearly in the process of making Miami a contender. And just his knowledge of the Patriots’ schemes, offensively and defensively, makes the Dolphins a threat.

Perhaps the most compelling storyline will involve Flores trying to thwart a Newton-run offense.

He certainly had inside knowledge of how to foil Brady’s offense, but now, he can only guess as to how the Patriots will deploy Newton.

Dolphins defensive coordinator Josh Boyer, another former Patriots assistant, said his team was somewhat blind regarding the Patriots offense and what to expect. What they do know is Newton has led a team to the Super Bowl, and Josh McDaniels is creative with the offense.

After that?

“There’s no film on it. There’s no tape on it,” Boyer said Monday, “and again it’s going to have to go back for us, we need to focus on our fundamentals and what we’re trying to do; but we know we’re facing a really good quarterback and a really good coordinator.”

On the flip side, it will also be interesting to see if Fitzpatrick, who threw for 350 yards and a touchdown, will have similar success against the Patriots defense, one Flores knows so well.

DeVante Parker, one of the few receivers who has had success against Gilmore, remains a primary weapon in Chan Gailey’s offense.

Bottom line: The opener should reveal a lot about each team.

“It’s a new year, it’s a new challenge, you turn that page,” said Gilmore. “You know they know us. We know them, but once you get between those lines, it’s all about competing … no matter what happened in the past, you have to prove yourself this year.”

By Karen Guregian, Boston Herald