It’s a strange feeling, having your team be up 30-0 at halftime and winning by 15 points but still feeling a bit unsatisfied and a touch concerned. Those were my feelings after the Miami Dolphins’ win over the visiting Houston Texans last Sunday. By all rights, the game probably should have been a more monstrous blowout, given the way both squads looked in the first half.
Alas, stud left tackle Terron Armstead leaves with an injury, the offense starts to look really janky in the 3rd quarter, and the entire second half becomes borderline unwatchable for us Dolphins fans. Fortunately, the Texans are so bad that it didn’t really matter and the Fins bag their fifth straight win to get to 8-3. This keeps me in good stead with my predictions thus far:
driftinscotty’s 2022 Game Predictions
|1||Patriots||W, 31-17||W, 20-7|
|2||@Ravens||W, 27-24||W, 42-38|
|3||Bills||L, 34-27||W, 21-19|
|4||@Bengals||L, 27-24||L, 27-15|
|5||@Jets||W, 23-20||L, 40-17|
|7||Steelers||W, 27-16||W, 16-10|
|8||@Lions||W, 27-20||W, 31-27|
|9||@Bears||W, 34-17||W, 35-32|
|10||Browns||W, 34-27||W, 39-17|
|11||Texans||W, 45-17||W, 30-15|
I knew it was ambitious to predict a 28-point win in an NFL game, but that first half was making it look conservative. Ultimately, Miami secured the victory and covered the Vegas spread of 14 points.
The result is that with a win this Sunday the Dolphins could still sit atop of the AFC East and could still have the #2 seed in the Conference for at least another week. This game against Houston marked the end of the soft, Twinkie-filling-like middle section of the 2022 schedule. Next up, and the singers say, is ten miles of bad road. First up is the San Francisco 49ers. Let’s have a look at what to expect.
Here are the primary team stats for the two squads:
Dolphins vs 49ers Key Team Stats
|Passing Yards||291.9 (2nd)||234.2 (10th)|
|Rushing Yards||94.8 (28th)||124.4 (11th)|
|Points Scored||25.6 (6th)||22.6 (15th)|
|Pass Yards Allowed||233.8 (22nd)||202.3 (11th)|
|Run Yards Allowed||109.5 (10th)||79.5 (1st)|
|Points Allowed||23.3 ( tie 19th)||15.7 (1st)|
|Net Turnovers||0 (tie 18th)||1 (tie 13th)|
|Against Penalty Yards||48.4 (19th)||45.8 (13th)|
These numbers suggest that the Fins will be facing their first major challenge in quite some time. This sketches the outline of a Niners team that seems to have no real weakness. It also strongly suggests an elite defense, one that might be the best in the entire NFL.
But things for the 49ers defense aren’t completely what they seem.
For more context, it does help to point out that San Francisco has played quite a few bad offenses this season: the Bears, Broncos, Rams, Panthers, Saints, and a Chargers team whose offense was obliterated by injuries at the time. Entering week 13, San Francisco has the weakest strength of schedule (.397) in the entire NFL. And among teams with 7 or wins, they have the 2nd lowest strength of victory (.375) ahead of only the Titans. This is not to say that the Niners’ defense isn’t really good - it is - but their defensive numbers are boosted a bit by the low caliber of a lot of their competition. Perhaps they are very good, but not pants-soiling scary.
What does San Francisco look like on film?
San Francisco’s Last Two Games: at Arizona and vs. New Orleans
Two weeks ago, the Niners went into a lucky situation in Arizona, where they faced a Cardinals squad without Kyler Murray. San Francisco’s defense took full advantage of backup quarterback Colt McCoy, too. Early in the 2nd quarter, they plucked a poorly thrown tipped pass, which the offense quickly converted into a touchdown. The score at the half was still a respectable 17-10, 49ers, but the Cardinals offense could get nothing going in the second half. While Arizona struggled to get within scoring territory, Jimmy Garoppolo and the bevy of versatile Niners offensive skill players picked apart a bad Arizona defense. Final score: 38-10. The total yardage numbers weren’t all that lopsided: 387 for San Francisco versus 314 for Arizona. It was more that Arizona had two bad turnovers to none by the Niners, and that Colt McCoy doesn’t pose anything remotely like the threat that Kyler Murray does, not with his arm and definitely not with his legs. Hence, nearly every Cardinals’ drive was stifled before they could get within scoring range. It was a nice performance by the Niners’ defense, and a typical day for Garoppolo, the running backs, and the receivers, who are always good for plenty of yards after the catch.
This past Sunday, the Niners faced another embattled team, the New Orleans Saints. The Saints dragged their injury-riddled selves to the Bay Area and tried to make a game of it. The Niners defense was having none of it. Against a Saints offense that was mostly Andy Dalton at QB, with some Taysom Hill sprinkled in, San Francisco shut down the few times it seemed they were building any sort of momentum. Very much like the Cardinals game, the Niners defense raked in two bad turnovers by New Orleans. Unlike the Arizona game, San Francisco’s offense didn’t turn them into points or have an especially good day. They put up a pedestrian 317 yards of total offense and scored a total of 13 points against a good but not great Saints defense. Part of this was the number of penalties they committed: seven accepted for 64 yards. Part of it was that both Jimmy Garoppolo’s most noted weakness was on display - he struggles with throws that aren’t in the middle of the field. When the Saints forced him to do this, he wasn’t nearly as successful as when he could find George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, or Christian McCaffrey for short or intermediate yards between the hash marks and let them tack on a bunch of yards after the catch, the method by which the Niners offense gains many of their yards. Fortunately for him, the Niners defense was able to clamp down on the Saints offense with relative ease. While they only sacked New Orleans’ QBs once, they applied steady pressure and forced Dalton off his spot frequently, and Dalton has long since shown adeptness at throwing while evading pressure. San Francisco’s defense was easily able to force Dalton into unfavorable conditions and keep a firm lid on the Saints offense all day.
In sum, the 49ers of the last two weeks were a team with a very good defense that covers well and puts pressure on quarterbacks, if not exactly terrorizing them into big sack numbers. The offense has its limitations, but it also has enough skill players to work efficiently within those well-known parameters.
How might our Dolphins stack up against this NFC club with serious playoff aspirations?
Head-to-Head Unit Matchups
Dolphins Offense vs. 49ers Defense: Terron Armstead’s presence or absence will make a big difference here (more on that in the injury section). It has been no accident that both times Armstead has missed time due to injury - weeks 5 and 6, and then the second half against Houston last Sunday - the offense has struggled noticeably. If he’s out there, there’s every reason to believe that the Fins will be able to move the ball reasonably well. As good as San Francisco’s defense is, they have faced almost no offense with the kinds of weapons the Dolphins have. The one time they did - against the Chiefs in week 7 - they surrendered 529 total yards of offense and 44 points. The Niners defense is really smart and athletic, but they’re going to have a hard time dealing with the kind of speed and separation that Tyreek Hill and Jalen Waddle bring to the table. If Raheem Mostert is able to rejoin the team as well, and it looks like he will, it adds another reliable option for Tua and the fellas. Now, if Armstead is out for most of all of the game, it will obviously have an impact. Still, I think the fact that it will be Tua out there and not Bridgewater, who was the QB for the two games Armstead missed, will mitigate the loss quite a bit. At this point, Tua’s timing, vision, and quick release have been on full display for a few weeks now. He should still be able to move the ball well enough. Slight advantage: Dolphins.
Dolphins Defense vs. 49ers Offense: This is a somewhat tough one to figure. Both Miami’s defense and San Francisco’s offense are both, on balance, middle of the road. They each have a defined strength, but neither one is completely scary. Neither one is particularly bad at anything, either. The Niners offense looks very familiar to us Dolphins fans: multiple skill players who are very good at a variety of things, keeping defenses on their toes. Deebo Samuel alone is a headache, never mind Kittle, McCaffrey, and Aiyuk. The thing is, the 49ers offense hasn’t exactly run roughshod over a bunch of teams. Only once this season have they topped 400 total yards - against a mediocre Chiefs defense when playing from way behind for most of the second half. It really boils down to Jimmy Garoppolo, who is a rather one-dimensional quarterback, that one dimension being throws to the middle of the field. If he has a receiver between the tackles and less than 15 yards downfield, he can hit those guys consistently. Outside of that? His accuracy becomes very suspect very quickly. He is also almost zero threat to run. In his 10 games this season, he’s run the ball a grand total of 23 times for 33 yards, with many of those being QB sneaks. Mix in some unfortunate injuries for the Niners, and they look less formidable. The Dolphins defense has proven excellent at stopping any sort of traditional running game, and they’ve gradually gotten better against the pass. San Francisco should be able to move the ball a bit, but I don’t anticipate them going above their season averages in any category here. Maybe not even that. Injuries will play a factor here. I think this area is a push.
Special Teams, Injuries, Coaching, and Other Variables
Special Teams: Jason Sanders looked a bit more on track last Sunday, hitting his three field goal attempts (at 23, 35, and 45 yards) and his three extra points. This has helped the special teams units get back to being respectably average. The 49ers special teams have a few issues, with Bobby Gould missing a few makeable field goals and leaving some kickoffs short and returnable. Opposing returners have racked up a number of decent returns on San Francisco, so there might be the tiniest edge for the Fins here.
Injuries: It’s been yet another week that ended better than it started on the injury front for Miami. Between Sunday and Friday, Terron Armstead went from possibly being out the rest of the year to probably missing a few games to possibly being able to play this Sunday. Austin Jackson is the only player listed as OUT, and though ostensibly a starter, has only played in two games all year. Only two other players were not listed as fully available: Myles Gaskin and Teddy Bridgewater, who are listed as QUESTIONABLE but are hardly the most integral parts of the team. San Francisco has a couple of bigger concerns. Pricey mid-season acquisition Christian McCaffrey, who was very pedestrian against the Saints, continues to battle a knee injury; he is expected to play Sunday, though. Looming larger is the possible loss of Deebo Samuel, the most important cog in this offense. He’s nursing a knee injury that kept him out of practice Thursday and limited on Wednesday and Friday. If McCaffrey and Samuel can’t operate at a high level, it makes things quite a bit simpler for the Dolphins defense.
Coaching: We have another Luke Skywalker/Obi-Wan Kenobi situation on our hands here. Mike McDaniel was part of the entire Mike/Kyle Shanahan coaching crew that followed each other around for years and included guys like Sean McVay and Matt Lafleur. McDaniel uses a ton of the same philosophies and offensive strategies that Shanahan and the rest of that cadre developed during their group tour around the NFL before each one of them got their shot at being a head coach. I have to give Shanahan the slight nod here, just given his six years of experience as a head coach, with a lot of success in the last four. I don’t think McDaniel will be intimidated at all - he hasn’t balked once at squaring off against excellent, veteran head coaches. I just think Shanahan’s intimate knowledge of McDaniel, on top of his head coaching experience, give him an advantage here.
Other Variables: Here’s where things suddenly get really dicey. The game is in San Francisco, a long trip for the Dolphins, which is obviously an advantage for the Niners. The weather forecast is calling 80% chance of steady, light rain and temperatures in the high 50s, which makes me nervous when I remember how Tua Tagovailoa played the last time he had to deal with such conditions (if you’d understandably mind-wiped yourself, it was the disastrous week 17 game in Tennessee last year). This could mitigate the passing game quite a bit, which won’t impact the 49ers as much as the Dolphins.
Prediction: Dolphins 17, 49ers 14
Given the probable rain and chill, I think this one ends up sloppy. Still, given how the Dolphins' passing game can easily morph into a shorter, quick passing game, I think this gives them the edge in moving the ball a little more consistently. I expect the running backs on both teams to get plenty of carries, often with minimal gains. Still, I like Wilson or Mostert to break of a few nice runs, while the ailing Niners backfield may struggle just a bit more. The overall speed of the Fins will be dampened by the climate, but I can see the bigger receivers like Gesicki and Sherfield playing key roles here. It’s a bummer, given how fun this game would be in better weather.
How are you feeling? Close one? Blowout? Comment away, and Fins up!!