Each of these teams enters the contest within range of one of the final playoff spots in their respective conferences, which means it will play a huge rule in the postseason chase no matter who wins. The 7-7 Dolphins would leap into seventh place in the AFC with a win, while the also 7-7 Saints would match the records of the 49ers and Eagles, who currently hold the final two spots in the NFC.
So, which of these two squads will jump into a playoff spot with two weeks to play and which will fall behind? We'll find out soon enough. For now, let's break down the matchup.
How to watch
When the Dolphins have the ball
The Dolphins run perhaps the most RPO-based offense in the NFL when they have Tua Tagovailoa under center. Tua doesn't have elite arm strength, but he's an exceptionally quick decision-maker with a quick release, so letting him read one second-level defender and get the ball out that way puts him in position to succeed.
According to Tru Media, he's 42 of 55 for 457 yards and a touchdown on RPO throws this season, and those numbers honestly seem kind of low. In any event, his 0.26 EPA per dropback average ranks fourth among the 14 players who have thrown at least 25 passes on run-pass option plays, which is obviously excellent.
RPO's, though, work best against a team that sends a blitz. When one of those second-level defenders is coming forward no matter what -- and not just on run action -- then it's easier to hit a throw in behind him. The Saints blitz at a below-average rate. They've faced only 22 RPO pass attempts this season, per Tru Media, though they have allowed 17 completions for 144 yards and a score.
His top pass-catchers will have tough matchups in this game: It's likely that Jaylen Waddle (back from the COVID list) will see a lot of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in the slot. And DeVante Parker figures to see shadow coverage from Marshon Lattimore. (Mike Gesicki would presumably have had to deal with Demario Davis, though he likely won't play after going on COVID reserve on Friday.) None of those players necessarily has an advantage, so it'll be up to Tagovailoa to be both quick and pinpoint accurate for the Dolphins to move the ball through the air.
Working against them is a weak offensive line going up against a dangerous New Orleans front. We saw how well the Saints got after Tom Brady last week -- and that was working against one of the best offensive lines in football. How well the group in front of Tua holds up will have a dramatic effect on whether he's even able to get the ball out in time for one of his guys to break open in the secondary.
No matter whether the Dolphins turn back to Myles Gaskin or let Duke Johnson run away with the running back job after his electric performance last week, it seems unlikely that they'll get much traction on the ground. They're not a particularly good running team to begin with, and New Orleans has arguably the best run defense in the NFL. Instead, they may have to count on their backs as checkdown options in the passing game. Both Gaskin and Johnson can create yards after the catch, and that skill will be particularly valuable against this specific opponent.
When the Saints have the ball
Ian Book is making his first NFL start tonight, and doing it against an opponent whose defense has been rounding into full form. Miami ranks 11th in EPA allowed per dropback on the season, but since Week 8 (when they got their cornerbacks back playing at 100%) is up to third behind only the Cowboys and Patriots.
The Dolphins lead the NFL in pressure rate (42.9% of opponent dropbacks) during that time -- a credit to Brian Flores' creativity and blitz design. They have blitzed on more than 40% of opponent dropbacks since Week 8, and figure to send a ton of pressure after Book and force him to make quick decisions under duress in the hopes of forcing turnovers. Book doesn't have particularly good arm strength or athleticism, so he will likely have to beat the blitz by reading where it's coming from and making the right decision. That seems highly unlikely to happen in his first NFL start.
Instead, the Saints will likely try to ride Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram for as much of the night as they can. Miami is better against the pass than the run, so that's a smart tactic for the Saints, but the Dolphins' heavy blitz rate figures to help against the ground game as well. With Miami unafraid of the prospect of being beaten through the air, running lanes figure to be clogged for most of the evening.
Prediction: Dolphins 17, Saints 13