A pair of 7-7 teams will look to keep their playoff hopes alive when the Dolphins and Saints meet on "Monday Night Football." And they're both getting hot at the right time.
The Saints stunned the Buccaneers as well as the rest of the NFL when they traveled to Tampa Bay and beat Tom Brady for the fourth straight time in the regular season. New Orleans recorded its first shut out since facing the Dolphins in London during Week 4 of the 2017 season.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, defeated the Jets at home to extend their winning streak to six games. That victory evened their record at 7-7 after they previously lost seven straight games.
New Orleans is of three 7-7 NFC teams vying for the final wild-card spot, although Minnesota and Philadelphia have tiebreakers over them and there are two more 6-8 teams hot on their tail. Miami is one of nine AFC teams with seven or eight wins and will need to leapfrog four of them to make the playoffs.
These teams have only met 12 times, with an even split in the series. However, the Saints hold a 4-2 advantage in New Orleans and have won the last three meetings.
Monday Night Football: Miami (7-7) at New Orleans (7-7)
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 27 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Dolphins -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Ian Book handle the Dolphins' pressure?
Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian have tested positive for COVID-19. Barring a last minute clearance for either, Ian Book will start his first professional game — and he has yet to take the field in the regular season. His on-field experience with the Saints consists of one half of one pre-season contest. He connected on nine of his 16 passing attempts for 126, no touchdowns, and an interception.
Miami's defense has not contained opponents' aerial attacks. The Dolphins have allowed 245.5 passing yards per game, the tenth highest total in the NFL. In nine games against common opponents with the Saints, that amount drops only slightly to 238.6 passing yards. They have given up 20 passing touchdowns and intercepted just 11 passes, both tied for 16th most.
Limiting opposing passing attacks sparked the Dolphins' winning streak. In their seven defeats, they permitted an average of 294.4 yards through the air per game. During their six-game stretch of victories, that average dropped to 184.3.
Much of the Dolphins' strong play has come when they effectively harassed opposing quarterbacks. They are tied for sixth in the NFL with 37 sacks, and those sacks have resulted in 300 lost yards, second most. They lead the league with 110 quarterback hits. Consistent pressure on Book could cause the rookie to struggle behind a depleted offensive line.
2. Can any of the Saints contribute to a credible passing attack?
Due to the season-long absence of Michael Thomas, the Saints have lacked a consistent receiving threat. Last week, Marquez Callaway turned in only the second 100-yard receiving effort by a Saint of this season after exceeding 50 yards in just two other games this year. Alvin Kamara accounted for the other game with more than 100 receiving yards in addition to the two other games in which he exceeded 50 receiving yards.
Deonte Harris has tallied 50 or more receiving yards in six games, three times the number of anyone else on the team. The Saints have yet to accumulate at least 290 yards through the air in any game, as they have the third-worst passing offense in the NFL with 194 yards per game.
3. What difference can either special teams unit make?
The Dolphins' special teams units have adequately served the team though not done anything spectacular. Jaylen Waddle leads Miami with nine kickoffs for 158 yards along with four punt returns for 20 yards. Jevon Holland has the most punt returns, 11 for 82 yards. Jason Sanders has connected on all six field goal attempts from within 29 yards but only made 12 out of 18 from 30 yards and beyond. Sanders has missed only one of his 30 extra point attempts. Michael Palardy has averaged 45 yards in his 65 punts. Justin Coleman scored the only touchdown by Miami's special teamers, a blocked punt for returned two yards and the score.
New Orleans' special teams have served up some drama, positive and negative. The Saints seemed to have found a kicker after trying four others before Brett Maher. In Maher's five games, he has connected on all eight field attempts from 49 yards and closer while missing his one attempt from beyond. Harris leads the team in punt returns, 17 for 191 yards, and kickoff returns, 25 for 591 yards. The Saints' special teams units have yet to score a touchdown this year.
Miami and New Orleans have played several games against common opponents. The Dolphins are 5-4 against the Bills, Buccaneers, Falcons, Giants, Jets, Panthers, and Patriots. The Saints hold a record of 4-4 versus those same teams.
The Dolphins have offset their disastrous start of the season. They still remain in contention for the AFC East crown. They do need help from others, requiring Patriots to drop at least one game and the Bills to lose two. However, they must win their final three in order for any assistance to matter.
New Orleans' defense has carried most of the responsibility for the team's moderate level of success. In the seven games since starting quarterback Jameis Winston sustained a season-ending injury, the Saints' defense has allowed an average of 20.4 points per game. Only two teams scored more than 30 in any of those contests.
The Saints require another outstanding defensive performance like the one at Tampa Bay. Barring that and without a phenomenal effort by the special teams, the Saints appear doomed. They are a depleted team that just lost even more key components. It is too much to expect them to overcome the absence of all experienced quarterbacks and several other significant contributors on both side of the ball.