This Monday Night, our Miami Dolphins get the primetime spotlight for their second and final time of the 2021 regular season. The first one went pretty well, being the Thursday Night game in which the Fins cracked the Lamar Jackson code for all the world to see, on their way to a big win. It was the second of their still-running six-game winning streak. They now sit at 7-7, about to face the also 7-7 New Orleans Saints in a battle between two teams fighting tooth, nail, and COVID to claw a few slots closer to one of the coveted Wildcard spots in their respective conferences.
So what's in store for the Dolphins?
The Tale of the Tape
Here are the two teams' per-game key stats, as per pro-football-reference.com and espn.com:
There's more than a little similarity in these overall profiles. They both speak to teams with good defenses, especially against the run, and offenses that leave plenty to be desired. Both teams are decent with turnovers, and they're almost identical in the penalty yards per game department. All of this may help explain why the over/under total in Vegas is only around 38 points right now.
As we know, though, overall season stats this late in the season can be misleading. Many teams will look very different in November and December than they did in the first two months. The Dolphins serve as a great example of this, being on a six-game winning streak after looking almost completely lost during their earlier seven-game losing streak. IT hasn't been against the strongest competition, certainly, but Miami has been headed the right direction for nearly two months now.
The Saints are in a slightly different position. They were on a nasty skid, having lost five straight, before getting right a bit and winning their two most recent games. But how, exactly, have the Saints looked in those two most recent game?
New Orleans versus NY Jets and Tampa Bay
Heading into NFL Week 14, New Orleans was reeling. After a 5-2 start with Jameis Winston at quarterback, they lost Winston to injury and were forced to MacGyver their QB situation with a combination of Taysom Hill and Trevor Simean. This, combined with a talented-but-battered defense, resulted in a five-game losing streak. But a cure familiar to Dolphins fans was there: a game against the New York Jets. I actually watched this game as part of my scouting report of the Jets heading into last week. This is from that post:
The following week, the Jets hosted the Saints, quarterbacked by Taysom Hill and featuring the second game back from injury for Alvin Kamara. Honestly, there was very little that was enjoyable about watching this game, even the 20-minute "Shortcuts" version that I watched on the NFL Sunday Ticket app. The two teams fumbled around for a full three quarters, an Alvin Kamara 16-yard TD run being the only rousing moment. The score was 13-6, Saints at the end of three. Then, much like the Eagles the week prior, the Saints decided to hit the ground game hard. And, also much like the week before, the Jets got steamrolled. A whole bunch of Taysom Hill and Alvin Kamara ground yards and 17 fourth-quarter points later, the Saints had the 30-9 victory. New Orleans ended up with 41 rushes for 203 yards and 3 TDs on the ground. Meanwhile, Zach Wilson managed to look even worse than he did against Philadelphia, going 19-42 for 202 yards and no touchdowns. Some of his passes were dropped, but plenty more were wildly off-target and nearly intercepted.
So the Saints used the ground game and waited for the Jets offense to self-destruct. It took until the 4th quarter to fully pan out, but once it got there it worked like a charm. This brings us to last week, when the Saints squared off against their division rivals, the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Saints of recent years have really had the Bucs' number, as Defensive Coordinator Dick Allen seems to know exactly how to use his talented defense to make Tom Brady look very, very mortal. In an extreme example of this, the Saints defense forced Brady into one of his worst performances in recent years, if not his entire career. While getting sacked four times and being routinely harassed and pressured by the stout New Orleans pass rush, Tom Terrific went 26-48 for 214 yards, no touchdowns, one interception, and a lost fumble. The Saints defense did allow 118 rushing yards on 21 carries, but they tightened up when it mattered, completely shutting the usually impressive Bucs' offense to zero points for the first time since 2012 (against the Saints, natch). It's a good thing the defense blanked the Bucs, too, since the Saints offense wasn't bringing much to the table. They only amassed 212 total yards, including a paltry 61 rushing yards. Thanks the Brady turnovers and one nice punt return, though, they got in field goal range and converted three times, coming away with the 9-0 win.
With these two wins, the Saints have gotten back into the Wildcard race, sitting with the same 7-7 record as the Dolphins. How do they match up against each other, though?
Miami Dolphins versus New Orleans Saints
Since players are getting added to and removed from the COVID/reserve list on a daily basis, prediction becomes a fairly dicey business. As I write this, the Dolphins are in much better condition. While our Fins have around a half dozen guys on the list currently, they are all rotational, backup players. The Saints, meanwhile, currently have all three of their top three quarterbacks listed as unavailable (Winston on IR, with Taysom Hill and Trevor Simeon on COVID protocol). If this remains the case, then completely green rookie Ian Book may be under center. The only action Book has seen was in the preseason, when he went a pedestrian 9-16 for 126 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. He did have a very nice college career at Notre Dame, using his scrambling ability to great effect. He is quite short, though, standing just 6'0", which explains why he was a 4th round selection. He may look something like a shorter version of Zach Wilson, whom the Dolphins defense contained fairly well. The Saints offensive line has been getting a bit healthier, which should allow Book (or whoever) a bit of time to maneuver, but the Dolphins defensive front has been getting better and better at applying pressure. This will put more pressure on Alvin Kamara, the Saints' lone remaining elite offensive skill player. A healthy Kamara is always a handful, and I expect him to be a huge part of everything the Saints do on offense. This is why having every starting hand on deck, including Jevon Holland, will be essential. If we're missing any of our key starters, the Saints may be able to pound out enough ground yards to protect Ian Book and keep things close. But if they can contain Kamara and pressure Book, I like our defense's chances to keep a lid on the Saints' offense.
On the other side, as usual, is where the questions arise. In general, though, I think our offense can do enough. The Saints pass rush is excellent, as their front seven is no joke. There are yards to be found through the air, though, and I think this will be key. The Saints really but Tom Brady in his place, and they made Zach Wilson look very much like a confused rookie. But Tua is far more mobile than Tom Brady, and far more poised than Zach Wilson. It looks like he'll have his full compliment of receivers for one of the very few times this season (I don't count Will Fuller), most importantly Jalen Waddle. There has also been the recent emergence of an improving offensive line (not counting Jesse Davis), and a rejuvenated running game featuring Duke Johnson. It certainly won't be easy against the Saints defense, but barring a complete meltdown by Tua in which he has two or more really bad turnovers, they should be able to post more points than a Saints offense missing so many key weapons.
Coaching is probably in favor of the Saints, given their pedigree and experience, though their results have been fairly spotty this year, mainly on offense. Both teams are pretty disciplined, and their special teams seem within the same realm, though the Dolphins special teams coverage is top-notch. No great advantages to be had in these "other" areas of the game.
One area of this game where I think the Dolphins have an advantage is on the psychological level. Yes, both teams are fighting for a Wildcard spot. Yes, both teams have talent and the ability to scrap out tough wins. But three things that I think are important: (1) the Saints had a big-time, emotional win against their division rival and the defending Superbowl champions. You know what happened when they did that earlier this year? They followed it up with a seven-game losing streak. Those things can be very real, and they make take their toll on New Orleans. (2) The Dolphins also won, but it was a win that left a lot to be desired. Tua played rather poorly at times. The entire team played flat and looked unprepared for the first full quarter and some change. A win over a bad Jets team, even one that was competing with everything they had, only goes so far towards proving that the Dolphins are ready to be a playoff team. Our guys should still feel that they have more to prove. (3) The Pro Bowl. The Saints had four players named to the team, while the Dolphins had only one - Xavien Howard - while having several guys who have played at or close to a Pro Bowl level. I understand why guys like Jevon Holland, Jaelen Philips, Christian Wilkins, Byron Jones, Robert Hunt, and a few others didn't make it. But these guys have to feel like the NFL-watching world isn't yet aware of just how good they are. This Monday Night Football game is the perfect chance to show that, and they seem like the types to embrace it the same way they embraced showing out in the Thursday Night demolition of Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense.
Again, it's not easy to guess who will or won't be available to play, so I'll have to roll with where things stand as I write this. I think this will be a bit of a slugfest, with both quarterbacks having to do a lot of improvising, adapting, and overcoming to be at all successful in moving the ball. Yards will be hard to come by, but I think our Fins will have just enough to outscore a Saints offense that's missing so many key components.
Dolphins 17, Saints 13
I'm going really conservative with the scoring here, given the strength of both defenses. If either team breaks out a bit and gets into the mid or high-twenties, it will be the Dolphins due to the health and talent of their offensive skill players. But really, I think this one will be a nail-biter that may come down to the final possession.
How are you all feeling about this one? Make your voice heard in the comments section!