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    Miami Dolphins vs. New Orleans Saints: Matchups, prediction for de facto playoff elimination game

    Tua Tagovailoa faces rookie Ian Book in a Monday night Miami Dolphins vs. New Orleans Saints contest with massive playoff implications.

    A month ago, this Monday Night Football matchup looked like a total dud. But now, the Miami Dolphins vs. New Orleans Saints showdown is one of the games of the week. Both teams are 7-7 and clinging to life in the NFL standings. Both teams endured impossibly long losing streaks (seven for the Dolphins, five for the Saints). And both have a chance of making the postseason — if they win out.

    So that makes Monday night a de facto playoff game. Not a bad way to close out Week 16. But Sean Payton and the Saints will need to find a way to win without Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian, who are two of more than a dozen Saints players on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

    Miami Dolphins offense vs. New Orleans Saints defense

    Welcome back to Miami, Duke Johnson. The former University of Miami tailback went over 100 yards for the first time in his seven-year career and bailed out the Dolphins’ offense in a 31-24 Week 15 victory over the New York Jets. Johnson accounted for more than a third of Miami’s yards from scrimmage and became the team’s first 100-yard rusher in 52 weeks. The Dolphins rewarded Johnson by elevating him to their 53-man roster — presumably for the rest of the season — and would be smart to keep feeding him the ball. The Dolphins have averaged 24.5 points during their six-game winning streak.

    But none of those previous six games came against a defense like the one they’ll see Monday. The Saints just shut out the potential league MVP and best offense. What they did to the Buccaneers and Tom Brady last Sunday night was remarkable. New Orleans held Tampa to 302 yards, 17 first downs, 6-of-19 on third down, and out of the red zone altogether.

    Tua Tagovailoa vs. Saints defense

    Week 15 was a regression to the mean for Tua. After completing basically every pass he threw for a month, Tua was off against the Jets (16-of-27 for 196 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs). Personnel had a lot to do with it (more on that in a minute).

    But so did play selection. Tua was completing 80% of his attempts because the vast majority of them were under 10 yards. The Dolphins asked him to push the ball downfield at a far higher rate last Sunday, and he struggled to do so. On attempts beyond 10 yards, he was 4-of-11 for 85 yards and an interception — a passer rating of 26.7.

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    If last week was any guide, things won’t get much easier against the Saints. Brady went 6-of-17 for 102 and a pick (32.0 rating) on passes beyond 10 yards. That’s been New Orleans’ standard for much of the season. The Saints’ defense is fifth in passer rating against (82.5), sixth in points allowed (20.4) and interception rate (3.0%), 10th on third downs (37.3%), and 16th in yards per pass (6.6) — not to mention No. 1 in red-zone defensive efficiency (33.6%)

    Advantage: Saints

    Dolphins weapons vs. Saints defensive backs

    The easiest explanation for Tua’s struggles last week was Jaylen Waddle’s absence. He was out after testing positive for COVID-19. Waddle is the engine that makes the Dolphins’ offense go. He leads the team in catches (86, a franchise rookie record), targets (114), yards (849), and touchdowns (4). Getting DeVante Parker back from injury has been a big help. He’s caught 9 balls for 130 yards and a touchdown in his two games back. We expect Johnson to continue getting the ball, but the Dolphins will still work in Myles Gaskin.

    The Saints’ secondary has been scary good this year. But their performance against Brady Sunday — both physically and mentally — was their best of the year. Numbers can’t do the group justice, but here are the advanced metrics for their top five defensive backs, according to snap count:

    • S Malcolm Jenkins*: 56.3% completions against, 6.5 yards per target, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 79.9 rating
    • S Marcus Williams: 54.3%, 10.4 ypt, 3 TDs, 2 INTs, 95.4
    • CB Marshon Lattimore: 54.8%, 8.2 ypt, 6 TDs, 2 INTs, 94.6
    • CB Paulson Adebo: 61.1%, 7.6 ypt, 4 TDs, 2 INTs, 91.4
    • S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson: 61.7%, 6.8 ypt, 1 TD, 2 INTs, 71.2

    *An important update: Jenkins is on the reserve/COVID-19 list and is not expected to play.

    Advantage: Saints

    Dolphins offensive line vs. Saints defensive front

    Credit where it’s due: Miami’s line has been better in recent weeks. But that doesn’t mean it’s been good. Tua has been sacked just 6 times in the last five weeks, but that’s as much of a function of his quick release as it is great protection. The Dolphins still rank last in pass-block win rate (45%), although they are up to ninth in run-block win rate (72%). So, on the surface, it would be smart for the Dolphins to ride the hot hand and see if Duke can juke again in Week 16.

    Yet, that would probably be a mistake because the Saints have one of the best run defenses in football. They rank first in yards per carry (3.8) and fifth in yards per game (96.6). New Orleans’ goal-to-go defense is fantastic (60.9%, sixth in football). But that has been largely a reflection of linebacker Demario Davis (13 tackles for loss) — and he’s on the COVID list. One thing the Saints don’t do particularly well? Get after the quarterback. Their pass-rush win rate (33%) is last in football.

    Advantage: Saints

    New Orleans Saints offense vs. Miami Dolphins defense

    When your defense shuts out the opposition, you hardly need anything from your offense to win. The Saints crossed that bar in Week 15 — but just barely. New Orleans managed just 212 yards, 11 first downs, 3.5 yards per play, and went 3-of-16 on third downs. The Saints had first downs on seven of their 13 drives, and no more than three on any of them. Plus, quarterback Ian Book will not only make his first NFL start Monday, but he will also take his first NFL snap. This has all the makings of a rock fight.

    That’s doubly true when you consider the opposition. The Dolphins have been excellent on defense during their winning streak, and that was true again Sunday, particularly in the second half. The Dolphins limited the Jets to 54 yards and three first downs after intermission. The only points Miami gave up in the second half came on a Tua pick-six. Since the start of their winning streak (Week 9), the Dolphins are second in defensive expected points added (EPA) per play (-0.2) and second in dropback EPA per play (-0.28). But they’ll need to be better against the run than they have during that stretch (29th, .01).

    Ian Book vs. Dolphins defense

    Which segues nicely into the most important matchup of the game. The Dolphins will surely throw the kitchen sink at Book. They entered the weekend as the AFC’s most blitz-happy team (bringing an extra rusher on 38.7% of their opponents’ dropbacks), and we expect Brian Flores to do anything to confuse the rookie. If the Saints get down early, this game could get ugly.

    But if the Saints keep it close, they’ll have a chance because Book can run. He went for 1,517 yards and 17 touchdowns in his four years in South Bend. We expect to see the Dolphins use a lot of the same pressure concepts against Book that they did against Lamar Jackson in Week 10, limiting Jackson to 39 yards on 9 carries and 238 yards on 26-of-43 passing.

    Advantage: Dolphins

    Saints weapons vs. Dolphins defensive backs

    The Buccaneers did a fantastic job corralling Alvin Kamara (18 yards on 11 carries and another 13 on 2 catches), but we doubt that’ll happen in consecutive weeks. He’s just too good in too many ways to be kept down for too long. But we’ve seen what happens to the Saints’ offense when Kamara isn’t playing well (or at all). The Saints are undefeated when he has at least 75 yards from scrimmage. And they might not have won at all if not for the 112 receiving yards on 6 catches by Marquez Callaway, who leads New Orleans in receiving yards (555) and touchdowns (6).

    The Dolphins would be wise to simply assign Xavien Howard to Callaway and let their other 10 defenders worry about the Saints’ other five non-offensive linemen Sunday. Howard hasn’t been quite as good as he was in 2020 (when he tied the franchise record with 10 interceptions), but he’s been more than solid. Howard still leads the team with 4 picks and 14 passes defensed, and his advanced stats — 51.9% completions allowed, 6.3 yards per target, and 75.7 rating — are also excellent. Plus, the Dolphins get back standout rookie safety Jevon Holland from the reserve/COVID-19 list.

    Advantage: Dolphins

    Saints offensive line vs. Dolphins front seven

    The Saints lost Andrus Peat for the season in late October, and they’ve been 25th in rush success rate (35.5%) and 27th in EPA per rush (-0.15) ever since. That’s no coincidence. The Saints on the year are 27th in yards per carry (4.0) and 26th in run-block win rate (68%). New Orleans has been considerably better in pass protection — fifth in pass block rate (66%) and 14th in sack rate (6%). But that’s at full strength. The Saints are not at full strength. Both of their starting tackles are at risk of missing the game: Ryan Ramczyk due to COVID-19, Terron Armstead due to a knee injury.

    That’s bad news against the Dolphins, who are excellent at getting after the quarterback (sixth in pass rush win rate, 45%) but not as good at stopping the run (4.3 yards per carry, 19th). If the Dolphins can win first down, they’re going to win the game. They are 13th in sack rate (6.9%) and can beat you in many ways. Jaelan Phillips and Emmanuel Ogbah have 15.5 sacks and 37 quarterback hits between them.

    Advantage: Dolphins

    Betting line and game prediction

    • Spread: Dolphins -3 (Odds courtesy of DraftKings sportsbook)
    • Moneyline: Dolphins -140, Saints +120
    • Total: 37.5

    Dolphins vs. Saints prediction: Dolphins 10, Saints 7

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