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'Monday Night Football' preview: What to watch for in Dolphins-Saints

Miami Dolphins
2021 · 7-7-0
New Orleans Saints
2021 · 7-7-0

8:15 p.m. ET (ESPN) | Caesars Superdome


To close out Week 16, we'll be treated to an interconference matchup between southeastern foes stuck in the middle of the playoff pecking order. The Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints each sit at 7-7 entering Monday Night Football. For a pair of clubs that meet only once every four years, Monday's event figures to be Olympian in significance league-wide. It'll feature a career debut in prime time, roster shortage issues on both sides and a lengthy winning streak on the line. How about that for a belated Christmas gift?


Here are four things to watch for when the Saints host the Dolphins:


  1. Bartender, two 7 and 7s ... on the rocks. Miami and New Orleans are meeting in the middle on Monday night, with both sides at an even 7-7 in the standings. Their records might be the same, but how they got there is not. The Dolphins started out a sickly 1-7 and looked destined for a top-five pick. But since Tua Tagovailoa returned from injury, Miami has rattled off six straight wins, albeit against opponents with a combined 26-58 record (.310); only four teams over the last 20 seasons have enjoyed a weaker six-game winning streak. In the crowded AFC, Miami currently sits a game out of the playoff picture. New Orleans has been streaky as well, also thanks to a QB carousel (Jameis to Trevor to Taysom). Now on their fourth quarterback of the season (more on that below), the Saints are coming off their most impressive victory of the season (at least defensively), a 9-0 shutout of the defending champion Buccaneers to put them in a three-way tie for the final seed in the NFC. Each riding respective highs, the Fins and Saints enter Monday desperate to keep pace in their ever-tightening postseason races.
  2. Saints are throwing the Book at 'em. New Orleans is entering a new chapter under center. How long it lasts depends on how quickly the Saints can turn the page from Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill to a much heralded rookie out of Notre Dame. Ian Book is slated to make his first career NFL start against Miami after Hill and Trevor Siemian landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The winningest QB in Irish history, Book is looking to secure his first professional victory donning a different shade of gold on his dome. The book on Book, a fourth-round pick in the 2021 draft, was that he boasted below-average size and arm strength but had plenty of leadership and intangibles. If that reminds you of another Saints QB, whom New Orleans may or may not have contacted this week to coerce out of retirement, then you're not alone. The best-case scenario Monday night is that Book asserts himself as the second coming of the undersized and once overlooked Drew Brees in the Bayou. Of course, the Saints would just as gladly take a turnover-free debut from the rookie.
  3. Can Tua do what Tom could not? Coming off a shocking shutout of Tom Brady and the Bucs, the Saints defense will look to feast on the sophomore southpaw Tagovailoa. But the Dolphins QB is in the midst of his own midseason turnaround. Tagovailoa has a 103.3 passer rating in his last five games, up over 17 points from his previous season average, and is averaging a full yard per attempt more (7.6) in that span. Tua is channeling his inner Brees, leading the league in completion percentage among qualified QBs (69.9). Also in Tagovailoa's corner is the return of rookie standout receiver Jaylen Waddle, who missed Week 15 with COVID-19. His 86 catches lead all rookies, and Waddle needs just 16 receptions over Miami's final three games to break Anquan Boldin's rookie record. Bolstered by a reinvigorated backfield, featuring journeyman Duke Johnson and Myles Gaskin, the Dolphins offense comes into Monday night ready as ever to challenge an elite defensive unit such as New Orleans'.
  4. Will Kamara and the short-handed Saints stay upright? Hill and Siemian aren't the only standouts sitting because of the pandemic. Leaders like Demario Davis, Malcolm Jenkins, Ryan Ramczyk and J.T. Gray are all sidelined. Sean Payton himself had to sit out last week's game as he dealt with his second COVID-19 bout. But it's not all bad news in New Orleans. Payton's back, and likely so is left tackle Terron Armstead. Save for Adam Trautman, Book should have a full complement of weapons, including do-it-all back Alvin Kamara. The five-time Pro Bowler is expected to carry the load here, as he did against the Jets in Week 14. Kamara's coming off his worst rushing performance of the season (18 yards on 11 carries) and is facing a rush defense that has not allowed more than 102 rushing yards on the ground since Week 5. To protect his rookie QB in his first start, Kamara and sidekick Mark Ingram must shoulder the burden of moving the chains. If New Orleans is forced to lean on the pass, it will confront a Dolphins pass rush that has averaged over four sacks per game since Week 9. That could result in the Saints marching out of the playoff picture heading into the penultimate week of the season.

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