The playoffs practically start this Saturday night for the Miami Dolphins (9-5). In a crowded AFC, the Dolphins are currently in the No. 7 seed, but face a tough road to make the tournament with Baltimore right behind them. The Raiders are 7-7 and practically dead after an overtime loss to the Chargers. Jon Gruden’s team has lost four of its last five games after a once promising 6-3 start.
Miami Dolphins vs. Las Vegas Raiders
Saturday, December 26, 2020 – 08:15 PM EST at Allegiant Stadium
Miami is a 3-point
Miami: Tua’s Next Big Test
If the Dolphins miss the playoffs, there will be questions about the timing of replacing Ryan Fitzpatrick with rookie Tua Tagovailoa. Since the move, Miami’s passing offense has declined while the team has relied more on its good defense to win games. Tua protects the ball better but takes more sacks than Fitzpatrick did as well.
However, the injury situation for Miami’s skill players is putting the offense in a bind right now in a way it would not matter who the quarterback was. Against the Patriots on Sunday, Miami was without its top five receivers for the season (based on receiving yards). Some had been out for weeks, but the loses of top wideout DeVante Parker (hamstring) and tight end Mike Gesicki (shoulder) are especially troubling. Their status is questionable for Saturday’s game.
With those holes to fill against New England, the Dolphins’ offense surprisingly had its second-highest game of the season in expected points added according to Pro Football Reference. Not to be misled by the 22-12 final score, Miami’s offense had four drives with double-digit plays as well as a nine-play drive for another touchdown. The offense moved the ball well on the ground and the only major blemish was an interception at the goal line by Tagovailoa under pressure.
Tua is unlikely to show off the polished passing game that rookie Justin Herbert had going against these Raiders last week, but Miami is built to sustain long drives with a mix of run and pass. The Las Vegas defense is also one of the worst in the league at stopping teams as only Maxx Crosby can rush the passer. Gruden continues to pay for that Khalil Mack trade he made in 2018.
The Raiders have allowed at least 24 points in all but two games this season. The Dolphins may not light up the scoreboard in this one, but they can certainly get to 24 points.
Raiders: Derek Carr or Marcus Mariota?
It is looking more likely that Derek Carr will finish his seventh NFL season without a postseason start under his belt. A late-season injury struck again last Thursday after he had to leave the game with a groin injury that coach Gruden has described as significant. Marcus Mariota replaced Carr and had a very encouraging performance with 226 yards, a beautiful touchdown pass to tight end Darren Waller, and the second most productive rushing game of his career with 88 yards and another touchdown.
We’ll have to see if Mariota gets the start or not, but his mobility is a spark for the offense that Carr does not really provide. The Raiders do not get many big plays in the rushing game this year. Josh Jacobs made the Pro Bowl even though he is only averaging 3.7 yards per carry and does not have a run longer than 24 yards. The wide receivers have been impressive at times, but Waller at tight end is still by far the best target on the team.
Miami’s defense is a tough matchup because of how many splash plays this unit has created this year. The Dolphins lead the NFL with 26 takeaways, and no one has more interceptions than cornerback Xavien Howard (nine). The Dolphins do allow a league-high 12.2 yards per completion, so big plays can be had on this unit if you avoid the turnovers. The Raiders have 11 giveaways in their last four games, a slump that has seen them only beat the Jets on a last-second miracle drive.
With an injured quarterback situation and a poor defense, the Raiders seem mentally checked out of this season ever since that loss to the Chiefs on Sunday Night Football over a month ago. Almost as if the team treated that as this year’s Super Bowl. The Raiders have not covered a spread in the last four games, so they have been a bad choice for anyone’s NFL picks.
Miami is not a flashy team, but the Dolphins are a league-best 11-3 against the spread. The only teams since 1978 with a better spread record through 14 games were the 1999 Rams (12-2), 2003 Patriots (12-2), 2004 Chargers (11-2-1), 2007 Packers (11-2-1), 2011 49ers (11-2-1), and 2015 Bengals (11-2-1). All six of those teams made the playoffs and four of them played in a conference championship game (two won a Super Bowl). Maybe Miami is not destined for that type of finish this season, but beating the Raiders by more than a field goal is more than doable.