Miami Dolphins (10-5) at Buffalo Bills (12-3)
This is one of the toughest calls of the week because no one seems to know what the Bills are going to be doing with their star players. Like Pittsburgh, Buffalo is locked into either the 2 or 3 seed in the AFC, so there is speculation that they could follow the Steelers’ lead and rest their starters week 17. Adding evidence to this speculation is the fact that the Bills rested starters in week 17 of last season, though that came in a situation where the Bills were locked into the 5 seed.
This situation is a little different for a couple reasons, so I’m not so sure we won’t see the Bills try in this one. For one, the Bills may still want the #2 seed, which they would clinch with a win over the Dolphins and a loss by Pittsburgh’s backups in Cleveland. The Steelers don’t seem to see a big difference between the 2 and 3 seed, but the Bills may see it differently. The Bills’ first playoff game next week will be their first home playoff game in 25 years and, unlike the Steelers, the Bills will be allowed to have limited fan attendance at their playoff games.
Seeing as it’s been so long since they’ve hosted a playoff game, they may be motivated by the opportunity to host two, which they would if they got the #2 seed and won the first playoff game, while landing the 3 seed would force them to go to Pittsburgh in the 2nd round (assuming both teams win in the first round). They wouldn’t have to deal with any road fans in Pittsburgh if they had to play there, but they could desire to play in their home stadium in a way that the Steelers don’t seem to. On top of that, they may want to get Josh Allen another chance to prove himself in the MVP race. All of this is speculation, of course, but there are reasons why the Bills won’t necessarily follow the Steelers’ lead and give their stars the week off before the playoffs to avoid potential injury.
This line, favoring the Bills by 1.5 points, seems to suggest that there is a chance that the Bills play their stars, but that they probably won’t play the whole game. This line was Buffalo -5.5 on the early line last week and a mere 4-point swing doesn’t seem to suggest that Allen and company won’t play beyond the first series, but the odds makers clearly aren’t treating this as a normal game either. If this was a normal game and the Bills were favored by 5.5, I likely would have been all over the Bills, as the gap between these two teams is much bigger than these records suggest.
Four of the Dolphins’ wins have come against the three worst teams in the league, the Jets (twice), the Jaguars, and the Bengals, while just two of their wins have come against teams with a .500 or better record, a 3-point victory over the 8-7 Cardinals and a win over the 9-6 Rams in which the Dolphins managed just 8 first downs and 145 yards of offense and primarily won because they had return touchdowns of 78 yards and 88 yards, which certainly is not sustainable every week.
Beyond those two return touchdowns, the Dolphins have benefitted from other metrics that have little predictive value, ranking 3rd in opponent’s field goal conversion rate at 73.91%, 8th in fumble recovery rate at 57.14%, and leading the league in turnover margin at +11. Recovering fumbles and opponents missing field goals are not replicable skills, while turnover margin is very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis as well. Teams with a turnover margin of +10 or more in week 15 or later, on average, have a +0.64 turnover margin over the final 3 games of the season, leading to them covering the spread at just a 46.2% rate in those games.
Overall, the Dolphins rank 19th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.41%, which is a more predictive stat. That lines up with my roster rankings, which also have the Dolphins 19th. The Dolphins have also been slightly better offensively with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center than Tua Tugavailoa, but, with Fitzpatrick on the COVID list, Tua will have to play this whole game. Making matters worse, his top-two wide receiver Devante Parker and Jakeem Grant are questionable and likely would be limited at less than 100% if they did play.
The Bills, meanwhile, rank 5th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +3.50%, 5th in my roster rankings, and may be even better than that suggests. Offense is the more predictable and predictive side of the ball and the Bills have absolutely dominated on that side of the ball this season, leading the league with a +4.83% first down rate over expected that dwarfs the 2nd place Chiefs, who are “only” are +3.63. The Bills’ defense has been an issue, allowing a +1.33% first down rate over expected, 26th in the league, but, beyond the inherent unpredictability of defensive play, there is plenty of reason to expect the Bills to be better than that defensively going forward, now that they are much healthier than they were earlier this season. After the Chiefs, the Bills look like the clear 2nd best team in the AFC.
My calculated line would have them favored by 9 points over a middling at best Dolphins team if this was a normal game. Given that, I’m inclined to take the Bills this week, as this line is 7.5 points lower than where it should be without clear confirmation that the Bills will be resting starters and not taking this game seriously. It’s hard to wager any money on a game this uncertain, but unless I hear that the Bills will be resting their starters for the full game, I am going to be on the Bills at -1.5 for a low confidence pick.
Buffalo Bills 23 Miami Dolphins 20
Pick against the spread: Buffalo -1.5