Los Angeles Chargers (2-6) at Miami Dolphins (5-3)
Sitting at 3-3, coming off back-to-back wins by 24 points, the Dolphins made the surprising move during their bye week to bench veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick for rookie Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa was drafted by the Dolphins with the 5th overall pick and was obviously the future of the position after the 38-year-old Fitzpatrick, but Fitzpatrick was solid last season as the starting quarterback, while Tagovailoa was still working back from a serious leg injury suffered at the end of his collegiate career, so it always seemed likely that Fitzpatrick would be the starter in 2020 unless he struggled mightily. Instead, even with Fitzpatrick playing similarly to last season and winning games despite poor offensive line play, the Dolphins took a big chance and went with the unproven rookie instead.
The Dolphins have continued winning, extending their winning streak to 4 games with wins in each of Tagovailoa’s first two starts, but the jury is still very much out on Tagovailoa. He struggled mightily in his debut against the Rams, with the Dolphins winning that game primarily because of defense and special teams and, while he looked much better in his second start, outdueling Kyler Murray in Arizona, that performance came against a weak Arizona defense that was also missing multiple starters with injury and illness. It’s very possible the Dolphins would be 5-3 regardless of their quarterback swap, so time will tell whether or not it was the right short-term decision for this team in 2020.
This week Tagovailoa will square off with the quarterback drafted one spot behind him, Justin Herbert, who went 6th overall to the Chargers. Herbert didn’t take as long to get into the starting lineup, although it took a fluke injury to veteran starter Tyrod Taylor to give Herbert his initial start in week 2, after Taylor won the season opener in Cincinnati. Since being plugged into the lineup, Herbert has won just one game, against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but that win came by 10 in a game in which the Chargers won the first down rate battle by 12.24%, while his 6 losses have all come by one score or less, including near victories over the Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Saints, who are among the best teams in the league.
By comparison, the Dolphins have faced a pretty easy schedule and they have benefitted from things like a +5 turnover margin, a +3 return touchdown margin, and a 55.56% opponent’s field goal percentage, three things that tend to be totally unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Dolphins rank 25th at -1.36%, well behind the Chargers, who rank 5th at +2.28%. The Dolphins have the slight edge on offense, ranking 19th in first down rate over expected at -0.23%, while the Chargers rank 25th at -1.44%, which is significant because offensive performance is much more predictive than defensive performance, but the Dolphins’ offense has statistically been worse overall with Tagovailoa under center rather than Fitzpatrick and the Chargers have a big edge on defense.
The Chargers are missing probably their most important defensive player in defensive end Joey Bosa, but this isn’t his first absence and otherwise they’re much healthier than they’ve been, as key players like defensive end Melvin Ingram (3 games missed), defensive tackle Justin Jones (3 games missed), right tackle Bryan Bulaga (4 games missed), wide receiver Mike Williams (1 game missed), and right guard Trai Turner (7 games missed) are all set to play this week.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, will be without #2 wide receiver Preston Williams and two of their most important defensive players Christian Wilkins and Kyle Van Noy this week for the first time this season. In their current states, I have the Chargers 2.5 points better than Miami in my roster rankings, so we’re getting some line value with them as 1.5 point road underdogs. There isn’t quite enough here for the Chargers to be worth betting, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes and the money line at +110 is a good bet as well, as the Chargers should be considered no worse than 50/50 to win this game straight up.
Update: Kyle Van Noy must have been a false positive because he was cleared to play after just a day in the COVID protocol, while Wilkins remains out. Van Noy’s presence will be a boost to Miami’s defense, but I still have the Chargers as just slightly better than 50/50 to pull the upset. I would lower this a couple confidence points though, with Van Noy in the lineup.
Los Angeles Chargers 17 Miami Dolphins 16 Upset Pick +110
Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +1.5