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Miami Dolphins vs. San Francisco 49ers Prediction: Red-Hot Teams Meet on the West Coast

Dolphins have won five in a row, 49ers four entering this intriguing coaching chess match between student and teacher.

The Dolphins took a major risk by hiring first-time head coach Mike McDaniel over the offseason, and it's quickly played dividends with Miami near the top of the AFC standings.

Now comes one of their biggest tests of the season, as McDaniel faces off against his former team when the Dolphins visit the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.

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There's quite a bit of familiarity between these teams, as McDaniel and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan's connection goes back to the 2007 Texans. Most recently, McDaniel was the 49ers' run game coordinator from 2017-20 and offensive coordinator in '21.

But despite both still sharing their affinity for the outside zone scheme, their offenses have been quite different now that they're separated. San Francisco remains one of the more run-heavy teams at a 47.3 percent clip (11th), but Miami runs just 39.7 percent of the time (26th). The 49ers are winning on the strength of the No. 1 defense, while the Dolphins' second-ranked passing attack carries them.

Differing styles aside, both teams are thriving since McDaniel left. Thanks to a five-game winning streak and a tiebreaker over the Bills, the Dolphins are well-positioned in the AFC playoff picture and are on pace to win 12 games for the first time since 1990. The 49ers, meanwhile have ridden a four-game winning streak into first in the NFC West and third overall in the NFC.

So in a matchup of master and apprentice, who will come out on top? Can the Dolphins stamp their arrival with a signature win after five straight games against losing teams? Or will the 49ers defend their home turf and stake their claim as a Super Bowl heavyweight?

Miami (8-3) at San Francisco (7-4)

Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 4 at 4:05 p.m. ET
Live Stream: fuboTV (Start your free trial)
Spread: 49ers -4
Tickets: As low as $196 on*

Three Things to Watch

1. Running game familiarity
It's hard to start anywhere other than here. McDaniel continues to tweak the Shanahan offense, but most of the same principles remain the same. This will make it all the more interesting to see how the defenses react after seeing the same zone-blocking principles in practice every day.

Of course, Miami hasn't had the strongest running attack this season, despite bringing in former 49ers backs Raheem Mostert (over the offseason) and Jeff Wilson Jr. (at the trade deadline). Mostert has been limited at practice after missing last week with a knee injury but is expected to play. Collectively, the Dolphins are averaging just four yards per carry (27th), although their rushing DVOA (-4.3 percent, 17th) paints a rosier picture.

They will have quite the challenge going up against a 49ers front that ranks first in rushing yards allowed per game (79.4) and per carry (3.3). San Francisco even ranks fourth in run stop win rate (33 percent) and second in adjusted line yards (3.54).

For San Francisco on offense, it ranks a disappointing 11th in rushing yards per game (124.4) and 18th in yards per carry (4.4), but the offense looks a lot more potent since the acquisition of Christian McCaffrey. Still, the 49ers actually rank below Miami in rushing DVOA (-7.5 percent, 21st).

Miami has had a fairly underrated run defense this season, even outside of last week's dominant showing against the lowly Texans (14 att., 36 yds.). The Dolphins' standard statistics are fine (109.5 ypg, 10th; 4.5 ypc, 17th), but they are fifth in adjusted line yards (3.88) and eighth in run stop win rate (32 percent). Add in the familiarity, and it could also be hard for San Francisco to establish the run.

2. Armstead and Armstead
Trading for Tyreek Hill rightfully got major headlines over the offseason, but bringing in Pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead was another crucial move. This was a team that ranked dead last in pass block win rate (47 percent) last season. With an upgraded line, Miami is still below average but markedly improved (55 percent, 25th).

However, Terron Armstead had to leave last week's game with a triceps injury and has missed practice this week. If he's unable to go — or even limited — the 49ers are going to absolutely feast. Despite missing key linemen Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead for chunks of the season, they rank eighth in both pressure rate (24.2 percent) and sacks (3.0 per game).

And Armstead could be returning this week from plantar fasciitis, after missing the last seven games. He returned to practice this week and could be a big boon to this front line. Regardless of how much he plays, this will be a strengthened 49ers line going up against a depleted Dolphins line.

Perhaps San Francisco's biggest weakness is against deep passes — one of Miami's strengths — but it will only be possible for Tua Tagovailoa to get those long throws out if he's not under pressure. More than likely, the Dolphins will be forced to get the ball out quickly. Which they have been able to do well but also limits big-play ability.

3. Is George Kittle back?
After totaling 2,945 receiving yards in his first three seasons, Kittle has yet to eclipse 1,000 in the past three seasons. He's not quite on pace this year (450 through nine games) but is putting up bigger numbers lately and has the potential for a big outing against Miami.

The Dolphins' defense has played a lot more Cover 3 Zone this season, which helps eliminate yards after the catch, one of the 49ers' biggest strengths. But it also leads to more completed passes for moderate gains. Tight ends, in particular, have done well. Miami has given up the second-most receptions (69), seventh-most yards (643), and third-most touchdowns (seven) to the position this season.

Worth watching: the Dolphins' defense has also struggled inside the 20 during a season in which offenses have put up historically low red-zone scoring. Opponents have put up a TD on 67.7 percent of red zone drives, 29th in the NFL. With Kittle having four touchdowns in his last five games, he's a big name to watch here.

Final Analysis

Miami's speed with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle has been nearly impossible to defend at times, but unless Terron Armstead is healthy and effective, it's easy to see the Niners' pass rush negating that strength. Playing at home will give them a nice cushion as well, but this should be an exciting game with the potential for a rematch in two months.

Prediction: 49ers 24, Dolphins 21

*Price as of publication.