Friday, December 26, 2008

Reader Mailbag: Phins-Jets Part Deux

Here's an email I received from a reader:
Since their first game with the Jets, have the Dolphins as a whole improved enough to come away with a win on Sunday? What do the Dolphins need to do to be successful on Sunday?

The Dolphins are leagues ahead of where they were in Week 1 when they lost to the Jets, and that game was very winnable, so simply, yes, Miami has improved enough to beat the Jets this Sunday and fly back to South Florida as the AFC East champs.

But let's look at some numbers, to show just how much of an improvement Miami has made since the first meeting between these two teams. (I'm going to be using some Football Outsiders advanced stats here - VOA and DVOA ratings - since they do the best job of showing how well a team is playing throughout the season. For an in-depth explanation of what these numbers mean, check out their site.)

The more negative a VOA/DVOA rating for a team's overall performance, the worse that team was performing/was predicted to perform.

After the Week 1 loss to the Jets, Miami had a VOA ranking of -32.8%, "good" for 23rd in the NFL. Following last week's victory over the Chiefs, Miami has a DVOA rating of 6.8%, 17th best in the league. But, at this late point in the season, it's better to look at Weighted DVOA numbers since they are adjusted so that early-season games become gradually less important. The weighted numbers better reflect how a team is currently playing. Miami's Weighted DVOA after Week 16 is 8.0%, 13th best in the league.

So, according to these numbers, Miami has vaulted from a team around 23rd best in the league to a top-15 team. That sounds about right doesn't it?

Now, let's look at how the Jets have fared over this same span.

After Week 1, the Jets had a VOA rating of 12.2% (12th best in NFL). After Week 16, they have a total DVOA of 3.9% (19th) and a Weighted DVOA of 5.2% (16th). So the Jets have stayed pretty consistent throughout the season, although it's clear that the past month has definitely seen them stumble.

The numbers bear out a simple observation of these two teams - that Miami has been getting better and better all season long, while the Jets have started to seriously nose dive over the last month. These are two teams currently headed in opposte directions, but all it takes is a single game to reverse a team's fortune. Just look back to Miami's Week 3 game versus the Patriots.

So to answer your question, yes, Miami has definitely improved enough to beat the Jets, but it's certainly no given thing at this point. And to accomplish this historic feat, Miami will need to do several things, in my opinion:
  • Be healthy - The Dolphins defense is going to desperately need Will Allen and Channing Crowder to be available at full strength. Without either or both of them, this defense suddenly has a lot more holes in it than usual. The Jets will be able to fully take advantage of that, unlike the Chiefs, who were able to draw blood, but failed to finish.
  • Handle NT Kris Jenkins. Jenkins has been fading down the stretch, but he still has the tools to dominate Samson Satele. Miami will need to have some semblance of a running game, and that will largely depend on the O-line's ability to control Jenkins. If they can't, they will be limited mostly to outside sweep-type runs.
  • Force Favre into mistakes. Brett Favre will make mistakes, that's obvious. However, it usually takes some sort of pressure to force him into making one of his patented bone-headed plays. And pressure is a result of both solid coverage by the secondary and the ability of the linemen and blitzers to reach Favre before a receiver gets open. Hopefully Joey Porter has saved his best for the most important game of the year. And if Joey gets shut down, the other guys must step up.

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