PATRIOTS // DOLPHINS OVERVIEW
It may not seem like it at first glance — given that the Dolphins rank bottom five in most major offensive categories and bottom half of the league in most major defensive categories — but this is actually an important game for the playoff race. The 9-3 Patriots are chasing the 10-2 Chiefs for the number one seed (while trying to hold off the 9-3 Texans, over whom they have the head-to-head tiebreaker), while the 6-6 Dolphins are still in contention for the final Wild Card spot. Miami has gone 1-4 without Ryan Tannehill and 5-2 with Tannehill (which has little to do with Tannehill himself, and more to do with the way they are able to play when Tannehill is under center). The Dolphins are also 1-5 on the road but 5-1 at home. Vegas opened this game with an Over/Under of 48.0 — with the visiting Patriots installed as 10.0 point favorites. This game was quickly bet down to 47.0 and Patriots -7.5.
PATRIOTS PASS OFFENSE
Miami has been a house of horrors for the Patriots in recent years, with this team going 1-4 in Miami across their last five games, and with Tom Brady posting the following stat lines (beginning with the most recent):
24 of 43 (55.8%) // 233 yards // one touchdown // two interceptions
25 of 33 (75.8%) // 276 yards // three touchdowns // zero interceptions (win)
12 of 21 (57.1%) // 134 yards // zero touchdowns // zero interceptions
29 of 56 (51.8%) // 249 yards // one touchdown // zero interceptions
34 of 55 (61.8%) // 364 yards // two touchdowns // zero interceptions
Late-season trips to Miami have especially given the Patriots fits — and the current forecast for Sunday in Miami is 81 degrees with 80% humidity. (Current weather in Foxborough :: 34 degrees // 37% humidity.)
The Dolphins have been below-average defending the pass this year (28th in yards allowed per pass attempt // a league-average catch rate // the fifth deepest aDOT and third highest YAC/R rate allowed), but with this team’s ball-hawking style (second in the NFL in interceptions) and their difficulties stopping the run, most opponents have gone extremely run-heavy in this matchup. Only two teams have faced a higher rush play rate than Miami, and with the Patriots now carrying three healthy backs, a fair expectation in this spot is a hurry-up approach (the Patriots already rank third in the league in pace of play) that tries to rotate backs and tire out the Miami defense. Passing should build off play-action; and if Brady throws 30 to 35 times, a good eight to 12 of these passes will likely go to running backs.
Julian Edelman is in a bounce-back spot against a Miami defense that has been hammered over the short middle this year, drawing a bottom eight DVOA grade from Football Outsiders in this area of the field. Edelman has target counts this year with Gronk on the field of 9 // 7 // 10 // 5 // 8. Another eight to 10 looks in this spot is a fair bet.
Josh Gordon has seen his matchup on the outside improve with stud Dolphins corner Xavien Howard week to week with a knee issue. Gordon has seen only five and three targets the last two weeks with Gronk returning (he had target counts of 4 // 9 // 6 earlier in the year when sharing the field with Edelman and Gronk), making him more boom/bust at his price tag than high-floor/high-ceiling. Two of his three targets last week came more than 15 yards downfield, and three of his five targets the week before came at 15+ yards, so he does still carry some upside on his limited looks.
Rob Gronkowski enters a middling tight end matchup with target counts in his games with Edelman and Gordon of 7 // 4 // 8 // 7 // 4. He is very clearly not moving with the same quickness that he had earlier in his career, but he is still a big body in the end zone, and the Dolphins have allowed the third most tight end touchdowns in the NFL.
PATRIOTS RUN OFFENSE
Miami has been one of the weakest run defenses in the NFL this year, ranking 27th in yards allowed per carry and inviting teams to run on them on film, with too many big holes at the point of attack and with an inability to get off blocks on the second level. The Dolphins rank 23rd in Football Outsiders’ second level metrics and 29th in open field metrics. It is unsurprising that the Dolphins have faced the third most rush attempts in the NFL. When these teams played in Week 4, the Patriots ran the ball 37 times and threw the ball 35 times. Sony Michel accounted for 112 yards and a touchdown on the ground. James White accounted for 44 yards and a touchdown on the ground and added 8-68-1 through the air.
This backfield is complicated by the healthy return of Rex Burkhead. Burkhead played only 17 of 74 snaps last week; but as noted heading into last week: any back adding a third body to a rotation is going to have an impact. Burkhead took seven carries and saw two targets. White saw six carries and nine targets. Michel saw 17 carries and one target.
The Patriots are highly likely to lean on the run in this spot, as this is the best way to beat the Dolphins, and this is the best way to offset the issues Brady has had over the years in Miami. It is fairly safe to pencil in Michel for 16+ carries even with Burkhead active, and it is fairly safe to give White four to six carries and six to eight targets. Either guy can hit on these less-than-elite workloads, especially in this matchup (and there is certainly opportunity for game flow to boost the workload of one of these guys). But price-considered floor needs to be bumped down for the uncertainty presented by the timeshare nature of this backfield.
DOLPHINS PASS OFFENSE
Given the Patriots’ history in Miami, and given that the best way to attack the Dolphins is on the ground, it seems unlikely that New England will play into the Dolphins’ hands and open things up with a downfield-attacking game plan. (This approach can bury the Dolphins quickly if it works; but the Dolphins’ ability to force turnovers when teams take to the air has allowed them to swing a number of games in their favor and scrape together a 6-6 record with a clearly below-average team.) Barring a defensive touchdown for the Patriots or a couple fluky-quick scores, this game should remain close enough for Miami to lean on the run, sticking with the approach that has allowed them to (incredibly) go 5-2 with Ryan Tannehill under center (after going 10-6 and reaching the playoffs under Tannehill in 2016 with this approach). Through seven starts, Tannehill has topped 25 pass attempts only twice, and he has topped 28 pass attempts only once. A full 20% of his passes this year have gone to running back Kenyan Drake — further limiting the opportunities for his wide receivers.
If you are set on using a Dolphins receiver, we should see DeVante Parker shadowed by Stephon Gilmore, with Kenny Stills taking on plenty of Jason McCourty. While cornerback matchups can often be overblown (1. there are not many true shutdown corners in the NFL // 2. most teams mix up coverages enough that a particular wide receiver will only see a particular corner a portion of the time), the Patriots match up their corners on individual receivers as much as any team in the league, and both Gilmore and McCourty have been legitimately challenging matchups for wide receivers all year. Gilmore — while typically trailing an opponent’s top receiver — has allowed a completion rate of only 47.0% on passes thrown into his coverage. McCourty has allowed a completion rate of 55.6%. Gilmore has earned PFF’s number two coverage grade on the year among qualified corners. McCourty sits at number seven — in between Denzel Ward and Patrick Peterson. Both Parker and Stills are long-shot plays in this low-volume passing attack, in a difficult matchup.
If Danny Amendola returns this week, he’ll soak up some looks over the middle against his old team. He would likely need a multi-touchdown game in order to really move the needle.
DOLPHINS RUN OFFENSE
It has been difficult to rack up fantasy points on the ground against the Patriots this year, as this team ranks only middle of the pack in yards allowed per carry…but for the third consecutive year, they have refused to let teams score on the ground, instead forcing them to win through the air when they get close to the end zone. In both 2016 and 2017, no team in football allowed fewer rushing touchdowns to running backs than the Patriots. Twelve games into 2018, only the Jags rank ahead of the Pats in this category. This is a tough setup for Frank Gore, who has only 11 catches all year and only two games over 67 rushing yards. As a “yardage and touchdown” back, Gore has failed badly in the touchdown department, scoring only once on the year.
The better matchup in this spot goes to Kenyan Drake, who the Dolphins have refused to feature all year, but who has at least remained involved in the pass game, with recent target counts of 6 // 8 // 2 // 6 // 2 // 6 // 4. He adds around six to eight carries most games and has scored eight touchdowns on the year (with four of them coming through the air). With stellar play in the secondary, New England has faced the third most running back targets and allowed the fourth most running back receptions in the league, creating a path to upside for Drake (along with his obviously low floor).
The Patriots’ passing attack is “bet on talent in tourneys” more than anything else. In a tough road game, against a team that the Patriots will likely attack on the ground, locked-in floor is thin outside of Edelman, and Edelman’s non-outlier ceiling is low compared to the guys priced around him. His price is most palatable on FanDuel, but his game is not as valuable in half-PPR scoring. Everyone in this passing attack would be reserved for tourneys only for me; and while this well-designed offense with multiple upside pieces could easily produce a viable tourney score or two, none of these guys will be a priority for me on a 13-game slate.
The backfield for the Pats is quite a bit more intriguing, and if Burkhead had not returned I would likely have had strong interest in White and Michel. All three guys will see touches this week, and it is likely that the Patriots run the ball plenty in this spot. Michel is a yardage-and-touchdown back, but his days of 24+ carries may be over now that Burkhead is back, requiring him to post strong efficiency on whatever touches he sees. White will remain a vital piece in the pass game and will take a few carries of his own. Burkhead will spell both guys and could actually become viable himself — at his low price — with a broken play or a touchdown (though either of those would be tremendously difficult to bet on).
With the Dolphins ranked 25th in points per game, 29th in yards per game, 29th in drive success rate, and 30th in three-and-out rate, nothing stands out on their side of the ball. In much the same way Corey Davis beat this matchup in a broken offense, it’s not crazy to think that Parker could see eight or nine looks and post a solid game, or that Stills could do damage on his five to six looks. Obviously, however, this is an outlier bet. I won’t be making it myself.
The same goes for shots on the Dolphins’ backfield. Drake is at least interesting in this spot, but there are safer, higher-upside plays on the slate.