The biggest game to date of the 2023 NFL season promises to provide an overabundance of entertainment value, and it may just answer a few questions about a pair of one-loss teams perceived as Super Bowl contenders.
The Miami Dolphins will invade Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field on NBC’s Sunday Night Football with the second-best chance of representing the AFC in Las Vegas this February, according to our projection model.
That’s largely based on the strength of an overwhelming offense that’s been among the most prolific in NFL history through a season’s six games.
MOST TOTAL NET YARDS THROUGH SIX GAMES (SINCE 1950)
- 2000 St. Louis Rams (3,056)
- 2023 Miami Dolphins (2,992)
- 1998 San Francisco 49ers (2,883)
- 2013 Denver Broncos (2,856)
- 2011 New England Patriots (2,847)
That relentless attack has also put Miami firmly at the top of the heap in EVE (our efficiency vs. expected ratings), though it hasn’t necessarily convinced any remaining skeptics despite its sensational start.
Those nay-sayers can quite correctly point out the Dolphins have faced the league’s weakest schedule to date, as the opponents in their five wins have a combined record of 5-24.
They’re coming off a 42-21 win over the winless Carolina Panthers and they flunked what’s been by far their toughest test in a 48-20 Week 4 loss to the Buffalo Bills, the team that looms as the greatest threat to Miami’s AFC East title hopes.
A victory this week would surely bring validation, however, as the Philadelphia Eagles are a proven commodity as reigning NFC champions and come into Sunday’s colossal showdown as the slight favorites, according to the sportsbooks’ point spread.
Our projection model, however, has the underdog Dolphins as the best bets with a 52.1% chance of winning the game outright.
While their pedigree remains unquestioned, the Eagles may have a bit to prove as well, as they haven’t exactly resembled the team that ran roughshod through the NFC through most of the 2022 regular season and playoffs.
They slipped past the Washington Commanders in overtime before beating the Los Angeles Rams by nine. And last week, Philadelphia suffered a mistake-filled 20-14 loss to the New York Jets to end its season-opening run of five straight wins. Still, like the Dolphins, our model gives the Eagles the second highest probability of making the Super Bowl out of their conference.
Though it’s been four years since these teams last squared off, plenty of familiarity does exist between the two. Dolphins defensive coordinator Vic Fangio spent last season on the Eagles’ payroll as a consultant, while Philly defensive play-caller Sean Desai is a Fangio disciple who worked alongside the veteran sage with the Chicago Bears from 2015-18.
Then there’s the most notable sidebar to the game: the matchup between quarterbacks and former Alabama teammates Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, with the former last season’s runner-up for NFL MVP and the latter perhaps the early front-runner for this year’s award.
SmartRatings merely confirms what one would already know by looking at the schedule, that this is THE game to tune into this NFL week. And our Eagles-Dolphins prediction is a fight to the finish between two powerhouses with more than enough firepower to threaten to eclipse the current over/under of 51.5.
MIA Key: Stop the Run
Though four turnovers – including three interceptions from Hurts – played the biggest part in Philadelphia’s stunning loss to the Zach Wilson-led Jets, it didn’t help that the Eagles weren’t able to run the ball with their usual authority.
Philly’s success rate on running plays during their 5-0 start was a league-best 49.4% and helped open things up for A.J. Brown and Devonta Smith, but that number dipped to 36.8% as they managed a season-low 80 yards on 22 rush attempts against New York’s stern defense.
That marked the 12th time (including the playoffs) in head coach Nick Sirianni’s three-year tenure that the Eagles were held below 104 rushing yards. They went 4-8 in those games, but they’ve won over 81% (26-6) of the time over that period when surpassing that total.
D’Andre Swift’s October freefall also has to be a concern. The former Detroit Lions running back was a downhill force in September, breaking and missing tackles with regularity over a two-game stretch in which he averaged over 150 rushing yards and nearly 7 yards per carry.
Swift’s last three outings haven’t been nearly as impressive, with the low point coming in last week’s 10-carry, 18-yard dud against the Jets. As the chart below demonstrates, his negative plays have been far more prevalent and the big ones have virtually disappeared.
The Dolphins’ overall numbers against the run don’t look all that good, as they’ve surrendered the fourth-highest percentage (41.2) of successful rushing plays for the season. However, that’s mostly due to an awful performance in Week 1, when the Los Angeles Chargers gashed their way to 233 yards and three touchdowns on 40 attempts.
Fangio’s unit has shored things up since, as opponents have had a run success rate of 34.5% over Miami’s last five games. The Dolphins also have yielded the lowest percentage of big rushing plays (those of 10-plus yards) since Week 2 and their rate of stuffs (tackles of rushers for negative yards) ranks seventh in the league over that stretch.
Containing Philadelphia’s often devastating ground game can take away possibly the Eagles’ best method of neutralizing Miami’s explosive offense, which is to keep it on the sidelines.
PHI Key: Get the Pass Rush Going
With Tagovailoa, show-stopping wide receiver Tyreek Hill and the underrated Jaylen Waddle, the Dolphins have been close to unstoppable (just ask the Denver Broncos) when attacking opponents via the air for just about all of this season.
There is a way to keep the NFL’s best offense in check, though, and the Bills revealed the blueprint by recording 20 pressures of Tagovailoa and a pressure rate of 48.8% in their Week 4 rout.
That game has been an outlier in an otherwise standout performance by the Dolphins’ underappreciated offensive line, however. Miami has allowed pressures at a league-low rate of 27.5%, which has enabled Tagovailoa to put his 87.5 well-thrown percentage (third among quarterbacks with 75 or more adjusted pass attempts) to great use in tandem with a receiving corps that sports an NFL-best open rate of 88.5%.
And no one has done more damage than Hill, whose 814 receiving yards are the most by any player through six games in a season since the AFL-NFL merger. He also owns the best burn rate of any player with at least 24 targets this season at 81.4%.
If the Dolphins have a weak spot up front, it’s on the flanks. Journeyman Kendall Lamm, subbing for the injured Terron Armstead at left tackle, and right-sider Austin Jackson each have pressure-allowed rates north of 12% that are well worse than the league average for their positions.
The 2022 Eagles, who led the NFL with 70 sacks, likely would have been able to exploit that soft spot. And despite a 28th overall ranking in pressure rate, this season’s defense may be able to as well – provided some key edge rushers can recapture their prior form.
Both Haason Reddick and Josh Sweat stood among the league’s best in pressure rate last season, with Reddick parlaying his prowess into a breakthrough 16-sack campaign. Though he’s registered 5.5 sacks over Philly’s last three games, his overall pressure rate is a substandard 12.1%, meaning he’s benefiting from havoc created by teammates or good coverage from the secondary.
Sweat has been more consistent, though his pressure rate of 14.1% is still below the league average of 15.3 for edge players.
The Eagles’ most effective pass rushers have been rookie standout Jalen Carter (18.9 PR) and the seemingly ageless Fletcher Cox (14.0). (Carter, Smith, Waddle, Darius Slay, Dallas Goedert, and Lane Johnson are all expected to play through recent injuries.) Carter and Cox are interior rushers, though, and Miami’s inside trio of center Connor Williams and guards Isaiah Wynn and Robert Hunt have all been terrific at keeping Tagovailoa’s pocket clean.
And Tua, who leads the NFL with 312.7 passing yards per game, has been downright deadly when given time to survey the field. He’s completed over 79% of his passes when not pressured with a well-thrown percentage of 88.9% and a pickable pass percentage of 1.39, the second lowest of any quarterback with 60 or more unpressured adjusted attempts (Trevor Lawrence has the lowest at 1.23%).
It’s a different story when Tagovailoa has taken heat, however. His overall completion and well-thrown rates when pressured dip to 57.8% and 75.6%, respectively, while his pickable pass percentage is among the highest of any quarterback.
HIGHEST PICKABLE PASS% UNDER PRESSURE (MIN. 20 ATTEMPTS)
- Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans (12.50)
- Jordan Love, Green Bay Packers (10.81)
- Joshua Dobbs, Arizona Cardinals (9.43)
- Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins (8.89)
- Gardner Minshew, Indianapolis Colts (8.82)
As others can attest, the Eagles could be in some trouble if they’re unable to apply consistent pressure on Tua.
But if they can, the Dolphins may have to wait a bit longer for that signature victory of the Tagovailoa/Mike McDaniel era.