Miami Dolphins (7-7) at New Orleans Saints (7-7)
The Dolphins have won six straight games after their 1-7 start to surprisingly climb back into the playoff race in the AFC, but they have faced a pretty easy schedule over that stretch and have not been impressive in many of the wins. Of the six wins, five of them came against teams that are a combined 18-52 right now, while their only victory over a team with a record better than 5-9 came against the Ravens, who were in a near impossible spot playing on a short week after an overtime game, a spot in which teams have covered just 3 out of 28 times historically.
Despite the weak schedule in recent weeks, the Dolphins still have a negative point differential at -27 and, in terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, they have been even worse as, not only have they faced a relatively easy schedule overall, but they have significantly overperformed expectations on third downs on offense, ranking 11th in third down conversion rate, but just 30th in both first down rate and in schedule adjusted offensive efficiency. Over-performing on third downs tends not to be sustainable long-term and, while the Dolphins do rank 17th in schedule adjusted efficiency on defense, their poor offensive rank drags their overall mixed efficiency down to 28th in the NFL.
Fortunately for the Dolphins, they get another break in the schedule this week. The Saints are 7-7 and are the best team record wise the Dolphins have faced since their Thursday Night Football game against the Ravens back in week 10, but the Saints are dealing with significant absences, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. The Saints pulled the upset in Tampa Bay as 11-point underdogs last week, but they primarily won because they won the turnover battle by two, which is not predictive week-to-week, and they lost both the first down rate and yards per play battle, which are more predictive week-to-week. Teams tend to struggle anyway after big upset wins like that, covering at just a 41.4% rate after a win as double digit underdogs, as teams tend to be flat after such a big win.
It also took a truly dominant performance from their defense, which held the Buccaneers to 4.14 yards per play and a 22.93% first down rate, to mask a very poor performance by their skeleton-crew offense, which averaged 3.53 yards per play and a 18.03% first down rate. In total, the Saints’ offense was without their original starting quarterback in Jameis Winston, a trio of expected started offensive linemen in Terron Armstead, Ryan Ramcyzk, and Andrus Peat, with Armstead and Ramcyzk being arguably the best offensive tackle duo in the NFL, their expected #1 wide receiver Michael Thomas and his replacement Deonte Harris, who leads the team in receiving and is an asset in the return game as well.
There was some hope that the Saints might get some of those players back this week, most notably their offensive tackle duo, but, not only are none of those players expected to return, the Saints will now be down to fourth string quarterback Ian Book, with backup quarterbacks Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian both being added to the COVID protocols this week and expected to miss this game. Book was deemed worthy of a fourth round pick by the Saints in this past year’s draft, but is very raw and the Saints have not seemed eager to get him into action as a rookie, despite a need at the quarterback position, so he should be a downgrade even from the poor quarterback play the Saints have gotten since Jameis Winston went down.
When the Saints’ defense is healthy, they are arguably the best in the league and they showed that last week, in just the fifth game all season in which the Saints had their dominant trio of defensive linemen (David Onyemata, Cameron Jordan, and Marcus Davenport) available at the same time, but defensive performance tends to be less predictive week-to-week than offensive performance and, even with those three aforementioned defensive linemen expected to play, the Saints defense is no longer at full strength, as they are expected to be without stud every down linebacker Demario Davis due to COVID protocols.
We are still getting line value with the Saints, whose defense should still play at a high level even without Davis, but that line value is only because the Dolphins are an overrated team and I am not confident enough in the Saints to bet on them against the spread, especially since they could be in a bad spot after a huge win last week. The money line is worth a small play at +120, as the Saints should be considered no worse than 50/50 to win this game at home (my calculated line is New Orleans -1.5), but I would need at least a full field goal to consider betting on the Saints against the spread.
Update: This line has jumped to three today, probably because the public is realizing that Terron Armstead is unlikely to play, as the “limited” practice he got in yesterday was an estimation, with the Saints not actually practicing on Christmas, meaning Armstead still has not practiced in two weeks. I factored in that Armstead would be out yesterday when I did this write up, so that doesn’t change anything for me, but I like the value at +3 a lot more, enough to bet the Saints.
New Orleans Saints 17 Miami Dolphins 16 Upset Pick +135
Pick against the spread: New Orleans +3