FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones turned in a stellar performance in his NFL debut Sunday, but a late fumble by running back Damien Harris at the Miami Dolphins' 9-yard line ended what could have been a go-ahead touchdown drive, as New England fell 17-16 at Gillette Stadium.
Jones finished 29-of-39 for 281 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions. The 281 passing yards are the most by a Patriots quarterback in his first career start, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
"I think we can get better; that's just how we have to look at it. Definitely wasn't good enough, starting with me," Jones said.
When the Patriots took over at the 50-yard line with 8 minutes, 7 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter on a Jonathan Jones interception, the stage was set for some late-game magic that fans previously became accustomed to watching Tom Brady from 2001 to 2019.
But Harris had the ball stripped away from him by Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard at the 9-yard line with 3:31 left, and Howard also recovered it.
The Dolphins converted two first downs to run out the clock.
"Damien's obviously very disappointed, but it doesn't go all on Damien," said Jones, who was also teammates with Harris at Alabama. "There's a lot of things I could have done to be better, to not even be in that situation, take some bigger chunk plays."
It was a stunning turn on a day in which Jones met the expectations that arrived with him after the Patriots selected him with the 15th overall pick in this year's NFL draft.
He threw his first career touchdown pass late in the second quarter, a 7-yard connection to receiver Nelson Agholor. One of the themes of the day was Jones' production under duress, as he was 8-of-12 with the touchdown when facing pressure, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
He led three drives of 14 plays, but they all ended in field goals. The lone touchdown drive covered seven plays and 54 yards, and when Agholor attempted to hand him the football to keep, Jones didn't want it.
"It doesn't really matter; it's just one touchdown," Jones explained after the game. "We have to score more. It's not like the game was over right there. We gotta do better in the red zone and get more touchdowns. And we will."
Rookie quarterbacks had been 6-0 under coach Bill Belichick in their first career starts. Jones' debut was highly anticipated in New England, with the crowd rising to its feet as he took the field in warm-ups while the song "Mr. Jones," by Mike Jones, played.
With Jones and the Patriots facing Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins, the matchup marked the first time two Alabama quarterbacks started against each other in the NFL since 1993.
"I was happy for him," said Tagovailoa, who finished 16-of-27 for 202 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. "It being his first real game, with a crowd like this, I thought he made some really good throws. Mac looks like he fits perfectly into their offense and system."
Jones said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had a simple message for him entering the game.
"[He] told me, 'Just enjoy the day. You'll never play a rookie-year opening game again.' But that's not how I wanted it to go," Jones said.
This is the second straight season the Patriots lost an AFC East game on a fumble in field goal range. Last year, they trailed the Bills 24-21 at the Buffalo 19 before QB Cam Newton fumbled with 37 seconds left.
The Patriots finished Sunday with four fumbles, losing two. The last time they had four fumbles in a season opener was Sept. 5, 1993, in a 38-14 loss to the Bills -- the day first-round quarterback Drew Bledsoe made his NFL debut.