8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Dolphins -3, Over/Under: 37.0
Week Sixteen comes to a close as a pair of teams clinging to an outside chance at making the playoffs clash in the Big Easy, as the decimated New Orleans Saints play host to the surging Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football from Caesar’s Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. Though they may not initially come to mind, the Dolphins (7-7, 3rd in AFC East) have quietly rounded into one of the hottest teams in the National Football League over the last seven weeks, and as a result have moved within striking distance of the final Wild Card within the AFC. Indeed, it’s been quite the rollercoaster ride for Miami thus far, with many pundits expecting them to make the leap following a surprising 10-6 finish in 2020. However, this was a team that struggled mightily to get out of the opening blocks, losing seven consecutive games after edging the New England Patriots in the season opener, 17-16. During that stretch it was the offense that really struggled to find itself, averaging a disappointing 17.2 points on 308.0 total yards with the rushing attack failing to find it’s legs in churning out just 79.2 yards on the ground on a dreadful 3.9 yards per carry. Of course, these struggles coincided with the continued dilemma at Quarterback, where (Sophomore) Tua Tagovailoa (69.9%, 2,141 YDS, 6.49 NY/A, 14 TD, 8 INT, 56.4 QBR) once again succumbed to injury with cracked ribs suffered in a 35-0 shutout courtesy of the Buffalo Bills in Week Two, sidelining him for roughly a month. Since drafting him fifth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, Tagovailoa has missed ten games over the past two seasons after rehabbing from hip and knee injuries that ended his collegiate career prematurely, while also being benched for generally poor play at various points of his time with the franchise. In his defense, (Head Coach) Brian Flores and (General Manager) Chris Grier haven’t done the best job in building a strong supporting cast around him, with the club routinely involved in trade rumors for Houston’s Deshaun Watson doing very little to build the 23-year-old’s confidence. However, now that he’s healthy and the trade deadline has long passed, Tagovailoa has been playing the best football of his brief career; during this six-game winning streak, he won his job back from (veteran) Jacoby Brissett en route to completing an efficient 74.4% of his passes for an average of 220.2 yards on a healthy 7.26 net yards per attempt with eight total touchdowns in comparison to just three turnovers. It’s also helped that the run game has started to get going, with 119.2 yards over the last four games, including a season-high 183 in last weekend’s 31-24 victory over the New York Jets. This one turned out to be a lot closer than expected, as the Jets jumped out to an early 10-0 lead in the first quarter, while a deep pass downfield from Tagovailoa to (Tight End) Mike Gesicki (64 REC, 685 YDS, 10.7 Y/R, 2 TD) was intercepted at their 43-yard line. With that said, the hosts would turn the tables and take hold of momentum with twenty-four points on their next five drives to take a 24-17 lead early in the fourth quarter, as Tagovailoa tossed the go-ahead score to the unlikeliest of targets, (Defensive Tackle) Christian Wilkins (64 TKL, 8 TFL, 9 QBH, 3.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 3 PD). However, the ‘Fins briefly flirted with disaster losing a fumble before a second interception of Tua was returned twenty yards to the house to tie the affair with just over seven minutes left to play at Hard Rock Stadium. Thankfully, Flores’ charges would finish off Gang Green with a nine-play, 75-yard drive ending with an 11-yard touchdown from (Veteran Receiver) DeVante Parker (34 REC, 457 YDS, 13.4 Y/R, 2 TD). In the end, the Dolphins totaled 379 yards of offense on twenty-three first downs, dominating time off possession with those 183 rushing yards on forty-two carries. The home side did commit three turnovers with Tua contributing with a pair of interceptions, but the youngster still managed to throw for 196 yards and two touchdowns on 16-of-27 passing. Miami also converted 5-of-12 third downs and a crucial 2-of-3 on fourth, thanks in large part to a pair of unheralded Tailbacks, namely Duke Johnson (26 CAR, 125 YDS, 4.8 Y/A, 2 TD) and Myles Gaskin (164 CAR, 580 YDS, 3.5 Y/A, 3 TD), with the former erupting for a career-high 107 yards and a score on twenty-two carries. As welcoming as it was to the see the running game continue to grow, it has been the play of the defense that carried this team back to .500, allowing a scant 13.1 points on 272.0 total yards during this streak. In fact, last weekend’s meeting with the Jets marked the first time in six weeks that Miami relinquished more than seventeen points and only the second time during that period in which they’ve permitted over 100 rushing yards. Furthermore, twenty-five of their thirty-seven sacks (10th Overall) and twelve of their twenty-one takeaways (9th Overall) have come in the last six games, sacking (Jets’ Quarterback) Zach Wilson SIX times last weekend. Wilkins and (Rookie Edge-Rusher) Jaelan Phillips (38 TKL, 8 TFL, 16 QBH, 8.5 SK, 1 PD) have wreaked havoc up front, while (All-Pro Cornerback) Xavien Howard (40 TKL, 1 QBH, 2 FF, 2 FR, 1 TD, 4 INT, 14 PD) is off to yet another Pro-Bowl with six takeaways and fourteen defended passes. And it’s because of this unit that they will be favored to get over on a struggling Saints offense that is in full-blown crisis mode with a plethora of players on the COVID/Reserve List (more on them shortly). Tonight’s meeting with New Orleans will mark the first between these teams since 2017, a 20-0 Saints victory in London. Over the last decade, Monday Night Football hasn’t been too kind to the Dolphins, who have lost all but two of their nine outings on the NFL’s premier primetime platform, including a 38-17 drubbing at the hands of New Orleans back in 2013, which coincidentally served as their last trip to the Superdome. Tonight’s contest is an absolutely critical one for Flores & Co, for after the events of Sunday’s action they can move into the seventh seed in the AFC with a victory in lieu of a difficult remaining schedule featuring a trip to Nashville to face the Tennessee Titans before wrapping up the regular season at home against the Patriots.
Meanwhile, given everything that’s happened to them in 2021 it’s really rather remarkable that the Saints (7-7, 2nd in NFC South) are still alive in the race for a Wild Card within the NFC. After getting off to an encouraging 5-2 start, New Orleans proceeded to drop five consecutive games due in large part to a rash of injuries and a COVID outbreak that they’re clearly still struggling with. After saying goodbye to Hall of Fame Quarterback, Drew Brees, who retired after fifteen largely successful years in the Big Easy, (Head Coach) Sean Payton handed the reins to (former no. one overall pick) Jameis Winston (59.0%, 1,17 YDS, 6.40 NY/A, 14 TD, 3 INT, 64.7 QBR), who spent most of last season serving as Bees’ understudy. The much-maligned signal-caller performed well in shedding his turnover-prone nature with fifteen touchdowns opposed to just four turnovers before unfortunately tearing his ACL in a 36-27 victory over the (reigning Super Bowl Champion) Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It’s a shame that his season came to such an abrupt end, for the Saints were 5-2 at that point and just handed the Bucs their third defeat in four meetings. (Veteran journeyman) Trevor Siemian (57.2%, 1,083 YDS, 5.65 NY/A, 9 TD, 3 INT, 33.0 QBR) would see action in five games before giving way to Taysom Hill (55.7%, 649 YDS, 5.77 NY/A, 2 TD, 5 INT, 40.1 QBR) who had missed four games with a number of injuries of his own. Far from a conventional Quarterback, the offense struggled mightily under Hill, and during that five-game losing streak they could manage to muster a miserable 19.6 points per game on 333.4 total yards, with a dismal TEN turnovers contributing no small part in their woes. Furthermore, the supporting cast around them has been decimated as well, with (All-Pro Tailback) Alvin Kamara (222 TCH, 1,016 YDS, 4.6 Y/T, 8 TD) missing four games with a knee injury, (2019 Receiving Champion) Michael Thomas missing the entire season following offseason ankle surgery, and the Offensive Line without stalwarts such as (Left Tackle) Teron Armstead and (Right Tackle) Ryan Ramczyk missing multiple games with various ailments. Add it all up and you have what has become by far and away the least-productive offense during Payton’s lengthy tenure in New Orleans; coupled with Brees, the offensive guru has seen his charges finish outside of the top-ten in total yards on just one occasion over the last fourteen seasons, ranking first overall six times, while finishing top-five in points scored nine times. This season, the Saints have plummeted to seventeenth in points (22.4) and twenty-sixth in total yards (324.4) due in large part to the NFL’s thirtieth-ranked passing attack (207.3). Perhaps the most glaring change has come on third down, where they consistently ranked among the league’s best for well over a decade with Brees at the helm, only to fall to twenty-sixth overall via a 36.3% success rate. Unfortunately, there don’t appear to be any signs of things changing imminently, for they will be without both Hill and Siemian for tonight’s affair with the Dolphins, as both Quarterbacks have landed on the COVID/Reserve List, along with the aforementioned Ramczyk, (Backup Tackle) Jordan Mills, (Defensive Captain) Demario Davis (95 TKL, 13 TFL, 9 QBH, 3.0 SK, 6 PD), and (veteran Safety) Macolm Jenkins (71 TKL, 2 TFL, 2 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 INT, 5 PD, 1 TD). New Orleans signed Blake Bortles off the street earlier in the week but have already officially named (Rookie Quarterback) Ian Book the starter for tonight, making the first start of his professional career after being selected in the fourth round (133rd overall) out of Notre Dame. Book should benefit from the healthy return of the aforementioned Payton, who missed last weekend’s 9-0 shutout of the Buccaneers due to his own spell with COVID. However, any success will in all likelihood boil down to the defense carrying the young Quarterback, which is something that they’ve done for two straight weeks now in guiding New Orleans back to .500. It’s ironic that in a season in which Payton has suffered the worst offense of his lengthy tenure in the Big Easy, that his defense is by far and away his best; (Defensive Coordinator) Dennis Allen’s troops has done an exceptional job with this unit which ranks fifth in points allowed (20.4) on 336.8 total yards (13th Overall), including 240.2 yards against the pass (18th Overall) on 6.2 net yards per attempt (17th Overall), and another 96.6 yards versus the run (5th Overall) on 3.8 yards per carry (1st Overall). Furthermore, they’ve been stingy on third down (37.3%) and the best that the NFL has had to offer within the red zone (43.6%). Last weekend’s shutout of the Bucs served as their magnum opus in so many ways, as Allen’s charges continued to vex Tom Brady & Co for a fourth time in two years. It’s not often that you’re going to beat any defending champion when all you can muster offensively is 212 total yards, eleven first downs, sixty-one rushing yards, and going 3-of-16 on third down, but New Orleans would suffer no insults from their division rival, relegating Tampa to 302 yards of offense and a combined 6-of-20 on third and fourth down. It doesn’t happen often, but when Brady gets rattled early, he can be prone to making mistakes, and the Saints certainly managed to do both, pressuring him ten times, hurrying him on three occasions, hitting him seven times and sacking him on four them. As a result, the three-time MVP managed to complete just 26-of-48 passes for 214 yards, an interception and a strip sack, leaving the game visibly frustrated as he trashed a tablet on the sideline. (Third-year Safety) Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (34 TKL, 2 TFL, 2 QBH, 1.0 SK, 2 INT, 5 PD) had seven tackles and was responsible for the interception, while (seven-time Pro-Bowl Defensive End) Cameron Jordan (43 TKL, 8 TFL, 16 QBH, 6.0 SK, 2 FF, 4 PD) totaled two sacks and the forced fumble. Furthermore, (four-time Pro-Bowl Cornerback) Marshon Lattimore (59 TKL, 1 FR, 1 TD, 2 INT, 18 PD) smothered Brady’s targets, particularly (All-Pro Tight End) Rob Gronkowski, who was held to a scant two receptions on eleven targets. If the Saints are to indeed sneak into the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year, then they must win out, which is a realistic goal given a less than arduous schedule featuring the Carolina Panthers in the home finale before traveling to Atlanta to face the Falcons, who are also barely alive in the race for the postseason. Monday Night Football has been a boon for the Saints since Payton arrived back in 2006, with the club going 18-8 in such contests, including 14-5 at the Superdome.