Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

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

Confidence: Low

Miami Dolphins at Las Vegas Raiders: 2020 Week 16 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (9-5) at Las Vegas Raiders (7-7)

Both of these teams have not been as good as their record suggests. The Raiders are 7-7, but 6 of their 7 wins have come by 10 points or fewer, with the exception being a game in which the Raiders won the turnover battle by 5, which is highly unsustainable, while 4 of their 7 losses have come by at least 16 points. Overall, they have a point differential of -44 that is most comparable to the 4-10 Panthers and the 4-9-1 Eagles. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, they rank just 27th at -2.77%. 

The Raiders’ problems are concentrated on the defensive side of the ball, where they rank 31st in first down rate allowed over expected at +3.62%, which is a good thing because defenses tend to be much more inconsistent week-to-week than offenses, so the Raiders’ past defensive struggles don’t guarantee another poor performance from their defense in this game, but the Raiders are also very banged up on that side of the ball, missing key players like linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, defensive end Clelin Ferrell, safety Jeff Heath, among other less important players, which makes it a lot more likely that they’ll continue to struggle defensively. Their offense hasn’t been anything to write home about either, ranking 12th in first down rate over expected at +0.85. Missing the players they are missing, I have the Raiders 25th in my roster rankings.

The Dolphins have more big wins than the Raiders, with 7 of 9 wins coming by 10 points or more, but they’ve faced a very easy schedule and have had some unsustainable things work in their favor. Four of their nine wins have come against the three worst teams in the league, the Jets (twice), the Jaguars, and the Bengals and just two of their wins have come against teams with a .500 or better record, a 3-point victory over the 8-6 Cardinals and a win over the 9-5 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 rank 2nd in opponent’s field goal conversion rate at 68.42%, 7th in fumble recovery rate at 55.88%, and 3rd in turnover margin at +10. 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 12th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +0.85%, which isn’t bad, but it’s less impressive than their record and my roster rankings suggest that they’ve overachieved to get to that point, with the Dolphins ranking 19th.

With both teams being a little overrated, I have no desire to bet on either of them, especially with this line being Miami -3, which is exactly where I calculated it. Neither team is in a particularly good or bad spot either or have any clear matchup edges. I’m taking the Dolphins purely because favorites tend to cover at a slightly higher than 50% rate late in the season, unless they’re in a bad spot, but this is a no confidence pick and the most likely result might be a push.

Miami Dolphins 23 Las Vegas Raiders 20

Pick against the spread: Miami -3

Confidence: None

New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins: 2020 Week 15 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (6-7) at Miami Dolphins (8-5)

The Patriots have been a tough team to predict this season because they’ve been one of the most inconsistent in the league, ranking 4th in the league in variance, only behind three teams that have had a lot more injury problems and, as a result, have started drastically different lineups at different points at this season, explaining a lot of the variance. The Patriots had some injuries earlier in the season when they lost by double digits to the 49ers and Chiefs and lost to the Broncos in upset fashion and they’ve been better in recent weeks, knocking off quality teams like the Ravens and Cardinals and blowing out the Chargers, but, even still, the Patriots have also lost to Houston during their recent stretch and were blown out by the Rams last week.

Overall, the Patriots have been a little bit above average. They have about an even point differential (-2), despite facing one of the tougher schedules in the league, and in terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, they rank 12th at 0.86%, which lines up with my roster rankings, which also have them 12th, now healthier than they were earlier this season during their most disappointing stretch. 

The Dolphins, meanwhile, have a couple more wins, but haven’t been as good overall. They’ve played a relatively easy schedule, with half of their wins coming against the three worst teams in the league (the Bengals, the Jaguars, and the Jets twice). Of their eight wins, just two have come against teams that currently have a winning record, a 3-point victory over the 7-6 Cardinals (who the Patriots also beat) and a win over the 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 generally benefited from metrics that are highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, in addition to their easy schedule. The Dolphins lead the league in opponent’s field goal conversion rate at 60.00%, rank 8th in fumble recovery rate at 58.06%, and they have a +10 turnover margin, which ranks tied for 2nd in the NFL. As counterintuitive as it may seem, going against teams with impressive turnover margins this late in the season actually tends to be a smart move. Turnover margins are very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and, as a result, 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.

In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, which is much more predictive, the Dolphins are a middling team, ranking 17th at +0.37%, behind their opponents, the New England Patriots. That is even better than their roster rankings, suggesting they’ve actually outperformed their talent level to get to this point. They rank 23rd in my roster rankings and, while they could move up if key questionable players like linebacker Kyle Van Noy, guard Ereck Flowers, and tight end Mike Gesicki suit up, if several of those players are unable to play, I am probably going to end up betting on the Patriots, even if we aren’t getting much line value with them as 1.5 point road underdogs. This is a low confidence pick for now (my calculated line is New England -2), but I may have an update when inactives are released.

Update: Van Noy will play for the Dolphins, but that’s where the good news ends on the Dolphins’ injury report, as not only will Gesicki and Flowers both be out, but the Dolphins will also be without their top-2 wide receivers Devante Parker and Jakeem Grant. Already thin in the receiving corps and on the offensive line, the Dolphins figure to have a tough time consistently stringing together drives in this game, even against a middling Patriots defense. The Patriots will be without running back Damien Harris, but they’re deep enough at running back that Harris’ absences won’t be a huge deal.

The line has dropped to New England +1, but I would lock this in ASAP in case the line shifts further. Also, I didn’t mention this earlier, but it’s worth noting that Bill Belichick is 45-33 ATS as the head coach of the Patriots off of extra rest, which the Patriots will have after playing on Thursday Night Football last week. And then there is Bill Belichick’s history of dominance against rookie quarterbacks like Tua Tugavailoa. If the Patriots hadn’t been so inconsistent and unpredictable this season, I would make this a high confidence pick.

New England Patriots 20 Miami Dolphins 16 Upset Pick +100

Pick against the spread: New England +1

Confidence: Medium

Kansas City Chiefs at Miami Dolphins: 2020 Week 14 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (11-1) at Miami Dolphins (8-4)

The Dolphins are 8-4, but they’ve faced one of the easier schedules in the league, with half of their wins coming against the three teams (Bengals, Jaguars, and Jets) who rank in the bottom-3 in schedule adjusted first down rate differential. They’ve also benefited significantly from opponents missing field goals, something almost entirely out of a team’s control, as their 57.14% opponents field goal percentage is lowest in the league by a wide margin over the 2nd ranked Ravens (65.00%) and an even wider margin over the 3rd ranked team (76.19%).

That third ranked team is the Chiefs, but there’s a wider gap between them and the Dolphins than there is between them and the last ranked Bills. It’s also hard to argue that opponents missing field goals is the reason why the Chiefs are 11-1 right now, as they rank 4th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +3.10% and have been incredibly dominant on offense once again, ranking 1st in first down rate over expected at +4.37%. Their defense ranks just 23rd in first down rate allowed over expected at +1.27%, but defensive performance tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive performance and, if the Chiefs get even a middling defensive performance, they’re near impossible to beat because of how good their offense is consistently almost every week. 

It’s safe to say the Dolphins schedule is getting a lot tougher with the Chiefs coming to town, a problem since they’ve only been a middling team when you strip away the benefit they’ve gotten from their schedule and from opponents missing field goals, as they rank just 17th in first down rate differential at +0.19% and even that may be outplaying their talent level, as they rank just 25th in my roster rankings. Unfortunately, we’re not getting the line value I’d need to bet on the Chiefs, as the general public seems to have a pretty good idea that there is a big talent gap between these two teams, with this line favoring the Chiefs by 7, exactly where I have this line calculated. I’m still taking the Chiefs for pick ‘em purposes because the general rule of thumb is to pick Mahomes unless you have a good reason not to (28-19-2 ATS in his career, including 18-11 ATS after winning his MVP), but I would need a better line for this to be worth betting.

Kansas City Chiefs 26 Miami Dolphins 17

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -7

Confidence: Low

Cincinnati Bengals at Miami Dolphins: 2020 Week 13 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (2-8-1) at Miami Dolphins (7-4)

The Dolphins are 7-4, but they haven’t been as good as their record. They have faced an easy schedule, including three wins over the Jaguars and Jets (twice), and they have benefited significantly from things like a +6 turnover margin, a +3 return touchdown margin, and a 61.54% opponent’s field goal percentage (best in the NFL by a wide margin ahead of the 2nd ranked team at 75.00%), 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 20th at -0.54% and even that is outplaying their talent level, as they rank 24th in my roster rankings.

On top of that, the Dolphins are also in a terrible spot, facing an easy Bengals team before a much tougher game against the Chiefs. Favorites of 8 or more are 15-31 ATS since 1989 before being home underdogs, including 9-20 ATS before being home underdogs of 3 or more (the early line is Kansas City -7.5). Hosting the defending Super Bowl Champions next week, it’s hard to see the Dolphins getting up for the last place Bengals enough to cover this 10.5-point spread. My calculated line is Miami -7.5, even before considering the bad schedule spot, so we’re getting good value with the visitor.

That being said, it’s hard to be excited about a Bengals team that has struggled this season and now is starting a bottom of the roster caliber quarterback in Brandon Allen, with talented starting quarterback Joe Burrow out for the season with injury. Along with the Jets and Jaguars, the Bengals are one of the worst teams in the league and I don’t like to bet on teams this bad unless there are really good reasons, but there are this week. This is much more of a fade of an overrated Dolphins team in a bad spot than a bet on the Bengals, but they’re worth a small play this week.

Miami Dolphins 17 Cincinnati Bengals 10

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +10.5

Confidence: Medium

Miami Dolphins at New York Jets: 2020 Week 12 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (6-4) at New York Jets (0-10)

The Jets haven’t won a game yet, but they’ve played better in recent weeks. In their last four games, their only loss by more than one score came against the Chiefs and they were able to keep it within a touchdown against capable opponents in the Bills, Patriots, and Chargers. That doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment, but considering they lost each of their first 6 games of the season by at least 9 points and an average of 18.33 points, it represents progress. The Jets still rank dead last in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -7.00%, but a lot of that is because of how much they struggled earlier in the season and they’ve actually moved out of the basement to 30th in my roster rankings. 

While the Jaguars and Bengals both being extremely banged up is a big part of the reason why the Jets moved ahead of them in my roster rankings, the Jets are also improved, primarily due to their offense being healthier, especially in the receiving corps, where the Jets have gotten each of their top-3 wide receivers back from injury in Jamison Crowder (4 games missed), Denzel Mims (6 games), and Breshad Perriman (4 games) in recent weeks. That’s been the biggest reason for their improvement on the field and, this week, they’ll get starting quarterback Sam Darnold back as well. While Darnols has hardly been impressive in his career, he’s still the Jets’ best quarterback and he’ll have his full complement of receivers available to him this week for the first time all season, so this offense has the upside to be much improved.

When these two teams back in week 6, the Dolphins utterly dominated the Jets in a 24-0 victory in which they won the first down rate battle by 13.30%, but the Jets didn’t have Darnold, left tackle Mekhi Becton, or wide receiver Denzel Mims in that game, which were big absences. On top of that, the Dolphins were still starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick back then and their offensive efficiency numbers have been better with him under center this season than with raw rookie Tua Tugavailoa, who will also be playing through a hand injury that knocked him out of the Dolphins’ loss in Denver last week.

That loss wasn’t really a fluke either, as the Dolphins have not been as good as their 6-4 record, ranking 22nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.83%. The Dolphins have faced an easy schedule and they have benefitted from things like a +6 turnover margin, a +3 return touchdown margin, and a 63.64% opponent’s field goal percentage (best in the NFL), three things that tend to be totally unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. With the Jets being better in recent weeks, my calculated line for this game is just Miami -4, so we’re getting good line value with the Jets at +6.5. There isn’t enough here for me to actually want to bet money on the Jets this week, something I haven’t done all year, but if this line moves up to 7, I would strongly consider it, as the Jets seem to finally be bettable.

Update:  Tua Tagovailoa was surprisingly ruled out for the Dolphins today, so Ryan Fitzpatrick will now get the start instead. I think that improves the Dolphins’ chances in this game and the odds makers and sharps seem to agree, pushing this line up to a full touchdown. With Fitzpatrick, my calculated line is Miami -5, so we’re still getting line value with the Jets, but I have no interest in betting them. 

Update: The Jets are surprisingly going to be without left guard Alex Lewis, even though he practiced throughout the week. The Jets will already be down their right tackle, which wasn’t a huge deal because their receiving corps is significantly better than it was earlier this season, but missing two offensive linemen is going to be a problem against a good Dolphins defensive front. I’m dropping all confidence on this game, but remaining on the Jets slightly.

Miami Dolphins 23 New York Jets 17

Pick against the spread: NY Jets +7

Confidence: None

Miami Dolphins at Denver Broncos: 2020 Week 11 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (6-3) at Denver Broncos (3-6)

Perhaps no team has been kept down by their quarterback play more than the Broncos. The Broncos have a strong defense, ranking 6th in schedule adjusted first down rate allowed at -3.64%, and aren’t even that bad around the quarterback on offense, but their quarterbacks have combined for a 56.4% completion, 6.50 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. They’ve been slightly better when regular starting quarterback Drew Lock has been healthy and in the lineup, but he’s struggled mightily as well and he’s going to be playing at less than 100% with a rib injury. 

The Broncos rank 30th in schedule adjusted first down rate at -3.78% and are even worse than that suggests because their quarterbacks have combined for a league worst 4.68% interception rate. Offense is much more consistent on a week-to-week basis than defense and the Broncos’ defense is pretty depleted by injuries and COVID absences and has not played as well in recent weeks. All that being said, my numbers still suggest the Broncos should be the right side this week, though that’s more about the Dolphins being overrated than anything, favored by 4 points in Denver this week, where the Broncos will have at least some fans. 

The Dolphins are 6-3, but they 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 22nd at -0.61%, suggesting they’re more of a middling team than their record. I can’t bet on the Broncos in their current injury state, especially with several key players considered truly questionable for this game. I may revisit this pick when inactives are announced, but I don’t imagine betting on Denver, even if they are probably the better side for pick ‘em purposes.

Miami Dolphins 19 Denver Broncos 17

Pick against the spread: Denver +4

Confidence: Low

Los Angeles Chargers at Miami Dolphins: 2020 Week 10 NFL Pick

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

Confidence: Low

Miami Dolphins at Arizona Cardinals: 2020 Week 9 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (4-3) at Arizona Cardinals (5-2)

The Dolphins made the surprising decision during their week 7 bye to bench veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick for rookie Tua Tagovailoa. Tua is the obvious long-term franchise quarterback for this team, but there was speculation he wouldn’t play at all as a rookie, working his way back from a serious leg injury that ended his collegiate career, and, with Fitzpatrick playing well in the first 6 games of the season, including back-to-back 24+ point wins in weeks 5 and 6, it seemed like Tua would be stuck with mop up duty for the foreseeable future. Instead, those two starts ended up being Fitzpatrick’s last as, seemingly sticking to a plan decided in the off-season, the Dolphins installed Tua as the starter during their bye and he made his season debut last week at home against the Rams.

I had a lot of concern that this offense would take a step back in the short-term with Tua under center, because Fitzpatrick was playing well and doing a great job of being successful despite poor offensive line play in front of him, something I didn’t expect Tua to be able to do as well right away. That concern was legitimized against the Rams, as Tua finished as PFF’s 2nd worst ranked quarterback for the week and led the Dolphins to just 8 first downs/touchdowns on 48 snaps, but that’s largely been ignored because the Dolphins won the game 28-17 on the strength of a +2 turnover margin and a whopping three return touchdowns, something they definitely won’t be able to count on every week. I would expect this offense to continue to struggle and for the Dolphins to not be able to compensate for that nearly as well going forward.

The Dolphins have the edge on defense in this matchup in Arizona against the Cardinals, as they rank 18th in first down rate allowed over expected at -0.92%, while the Cardinals rank 22nd at -1.64% and have some significant absences on that side of the ball as well, but offense is a much more consistent, predictable side of the ball and the Cardinals have an enormous offensive edge, ranking 2nd in first down rate over expected at +3.36%, while the Dolphins rank 23rd at -1.04% and will likely be even worse than that going forward because of their quarterback switch. This also could be a tough spot for the Dolphins because they are coming off of a big home upset win and now have to travel cross country to face a team coming off of a bye. Teams only cover at about a 42% rate all-time after a win by 11+ points as home underdogs of 3.5+ points.

Despite that, the Cardinals are just 4.5-point favorites because the general public sees the Dolphins being 4-3 and coming off of a big week and ignores that they’ve likely downgraded their quarterback, that they’re in a tough spot, and that they’ve faced a relatively easy schedule thus far this season, with two of their wins coming against the two worst teams in the league in the Jets and Jaguars and a third win coming against a banged up 49ers team that had to bench a hobbling Jimmy Garoppolo for CJ Beathard (and the fourth win being last week’s fluky game). Arizona should be favored by at least a touchdown (my calculated line is Arizona -7.5), so we’re getting good line value at Arizona -4.5. This is a high confidence pick for now, but it’s one I am considering for Pick of the Week. If I decide to upgrade this game, I will do so on Saturday.

Arizona Cardinals 31 Miami Dolphins 23

Pick against the spread: Arizona -4.5

Confidence: High

Los Angeles Rams at Miami Dolphins: 2020 Week 8 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (5-2) at Miami Dolphins (3-3)

This is a tough one to pick. Both teams have played easy schedules, but the Rams have played significantly better against their easy schedule, ranking 2nd in the NFL in first down rate differential at +3.27%, even when adjusted for schedule, while the Dolphins rank 22nd at -0.72%. However, offenses tend to be much more consistent than defenses and the gap between these two teams on offense hasn’t been much, with the Rams ranking 15th at +0.90% first down rate over expected and the Dolphins ranking 17th at +0.61%. 

The Rams have the significant edge on defense (+2.37% vs. -1.33%), but that might not necessarily continue, especially the Dolphins are arguably as healthy as they’ve been all year on defense, after cornerback Byron Jones and defensive ends Kyle Van Noy and Andre Branch all missed time early in the season and have since returned. If the Rams don’t continue being significantly better on defense, the Dolphins are a good value as 3.5-point home underdogs.

At the same time, it’s fair to wonder if the Dolphins will be as good offensively going forward, given that they are switching quarterbacks from veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick to rookie Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa has obvious upside long-term and Fitzpatrick is in his age 38 contract year, but Fitzpatrick has been a big part of the reason for the Dolphins’ success this season and was coming off of back-to-back strong games in big wins for the Dolphins prior to being benched.  It seems that starting Tagovailoa after their bye week 7 was always the plan (although no one told Fitzpatrick), as it’s pretty unusual for a quarterback to be benched when he’s been playing as well as Fitzpatrick has. 

Whether that’s the right move in the long-term remains to be seen, but in the short-term, it could easily hurt this team. The Dolphins still have a lot of problems on the offensive line and, at the very least, the rookie Tagovailoa may have a lot more trouble with that than the veteran Fitzpatrick. The Rams don’t have any pre-season tape of Tagovailoa, which may put them at a disadvantage against the rookie in his debut, but it still wouldn’t surprise me if he struggled, especially with the Rams having a strong defensive front led by game wrecker Aaron Donald. If Fitzpatrick was still playing, the Dolphins would be the right side, but with Tagovailoa in the lineup, I think I like the Rams, albeit for a no confidence pick.

Los Angeles Rams 20 Miami Dolphins 16

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -3.5

Confidence: None