The Case for Miami
DOLPHINS A DECENT DARKHORSE
IN AFC EAST, AND WHOLE AFC THIS YEAR
by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor
During our Divisional Previews that ran several days ago, we noticed that the Miami Dolphins had a lot going for them. We made a note at the time that we wanted to study the situation in more depth when time permitted. There's not a real obvious 'game day' situation any time soon that's presenting itself.
*Miami plays its dress rehearsal game this Friday Night, but the focus that evening will be the San Diego/New Orleans game on CBS.
*Miami finishes the Preseason the following Thursday at Dallas. But, that's a dead night in the NFL because the teams are mostly just going through the motions. It's also the first night of COLLEGE action that evening, and we'll be focusing on teams like Ohio State and USC taking the field...plus the big Pittsburgh/Utah TV game.
*Miami opens the regular season with a Sunday afternoon game in Buffalo. That's sure not going to be a marquee matchup getting additional NOTEBOOK attention given all the storylines in play across the league.
When will we get a chance to talk about Miami's darkhorse chances? We don't want to wait until October!
Let's take some time today to outline their case. First, a brief review of key notes from the 2009 season.
*Miami played the second toughest schedule in the NFL last year according to the USA Today computer. They only played four games all season against teams with a losing record (2 vs. Buffalo, 1 apiece vs. Jacksonville and Tampa Bay). They drew the tough NFC South in non-conference play (home of eventual World Champion New Orleans). They drew the tough AFC South within conference play (home of eventual AFC champion Indianapolis). Their draws from the other two divisions were San Diego (who finished 13-3) and Pittsburgh (the defending Super Bowl champs who would go 9-7). So, this was a BRUTAL schedule!!
That's New Orleans...Indianapolis...San Diego...Pittsburgh...the NY Jets twice...and New England twice...representing half of their 16-game slate.
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*Miami went 7-9 against this BRUTAL schedule, suggesting something more like 8-8 or 9-7 vs. an average schedule. That's enough to get you in the playoff race.
*Miami went 7-6 with Chad Henne starting at quarterback. Chad Pennington lost the first two games, then started Game Three before injuring his shoulder. The relatively unheralded Henne couldn't lead a comeback vs. San Diego off the bench, but did post a winning record vs. a tough schedule the rest of the way.
*Miami went 3-1 vs. the NY Jets and New England, and Henne started all four of those games. You know the Jets defense was amazing last year. The Jets had trouble with Henne!
In two starts, Henne combined to go 32-47-0-353 with three TD's.
*Miami had amazing numbers on third down conversions. You may remember this from our preview report (check the archives for all EIGHT divisional previews if you were on vacation or something a couple of weeks back). This is one of the best indicator stats in existence for evaluating talent, execution, brains, fundamentals, you name it. Miami converted 49% of their third down tries on offense, tying the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning for the best mark in pro football. Miami allowed just 35% defensively, which was tied for fourth on that side of the ball.
And they did that against a BRUTAL SCHEDULE!
So...at the end of 2009, Miami had put together quite a nice resume that was hidden by strength of schedule. Nobody was paying attention to them. The Jets were getting all the headlines in January from the AFC East...and nobody remembered that the Jets went 0-2 against the Dolphins.
Entering 2010, what's changed?
Miami added receiver Brandon Marshall to their lineup!
Henne is at a stage in his career where he's likely to keep getting better before eventually reaching a plateau (the general QB career arc). Now he has more weaponry...after having a decent season as an inexperienced QB playing a tough schedule.
The schedule has also changed in 2010. It's always dicey trying to figure out in advance whether a schedule is going to be easy or hard. There are extreme cases where it's clear (the NFC West plays the AFC West this year, setting up easier schedules for BOTH divisions). To the naked eye, it at least looks like it will be softer.
Miami will play Oakland instead of San Diego from the AFC West
Miami will play Tennessee AFC bonus (it was Pittsburgh last year)
Miami trades the NFC South for the NFC North, close to a wash
Miami trades the AFC South for the AFC North, close to a wash
The Jets may suffer a sophomore slump under Rex Ryan
New England may be fading at the tail end of its dynasty
We never trust 'may' or 'might' elements in a schedule analysis. This is probably still going to be a tough schedule, but it's got a chance to be easier...with an outside chance at much easier. We'll leave it at that.
What's most important in our mind is the fact that nobody's paying attention to Miami. The Jets are still getting all the media coverage, with their appearance on 'Hard Knocks' on HBO helping to magnify the issue. New England and Tom Brady are still making the headlines too, as the mainstream media isn't ready to give up on them (and ESPN is still a stone's throw away from Foxboro).
*Miami is likely to be very close to the Jets and Pats in quality Power Ratings. The market is likely to price them about a field goal worse, maybe more.
*Miami could conceivably be BETTER than the Jets and Pats if Ryan implodes and the Pats continue to drift off in the wrong direction.
*Miami could be a value team all season vs. whoever their facing because oddsmakers and the public aren't making a mental adjustment for strength of schedule from last year. Miami finished 7-9...which means 'losing team' to those only half paying attention. They were basically a Wildcard caliber team last year when you adjust for context, and there's a good chance they'll be better in 2010 barring injuries.
Here's a look at the early schedule:
At Buffalo (a huge break that this will be played in friendly weather
Vs. New York Jets
Vs. New England
Minnesota is a tough sandwich spot game...and the Vikings will have extra rest after starting on a Thursday Night. Tough to ask for a big effort from the Dolphins there. They do get their archrivals at home right away, giving them a chance to make a statement about the state of the AFC East.
After a bye week, Miami will be challenged with:
At Green Bay
Boy is that a seven game sequence...run your finger from Minnesota down to Baltimore. Maybe 2011 is the year the Dolphins will break through!
It does get easier after that, with Oakland, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Detroit resting in the back half of the schedule. There are still road rematches with the Jets and Pats though. Fate just didn't smile on Miami this year or last...after pushing them into the playoffs in 2008 when they weren't really ready to handle January football just yet.
Now, typically with darkhorse indicators, we'd encourage Las Vegas residents to think about the Over with the team total propositions. Miami's current projection is 8.5 wins. If they were an 8-9 win team last year after the schedule adjustment, it's easy to see the Over making sense. The brutal schedule will talk us out of that line of thinking. We'll be looking to take Miami at value prices early in the season (particularly in the divisional rivalry games). If they can hold their own through the first half gauntlet...then we'll decide what to do from Thanksgiving through the end of the season.
Miami needs to be on your radar. Hey, ANY team that can hit 49% on third down conversions offensively deserves that honor...as does any defense that can hold people to 35% or less!
We'll talk more pro football through the course of the week. We're really looking forward to the dress rehearsal games that start in a couple of days. The first halves of those games will be just as intense as any regular season meeting. Thursday we'll discuss the Green Bay Packers Super Bowl hopes as they get ready to host the Indianapolis Colts. Friday we'll focus on the New Orleans Saints' attempts to repeat as champions on the day they host San Diego in a TV game. Saturday the Dallas Cowboys will take the NFC spotlight for their TV game with Houston. We'll move to the AFC on Sunday and ponder the possible Denver Broncos scenarios for 2010 on the day they host Pittsburgh on TV.
Next week, the emphasis moves for the time being to college football, as the college season will be kicking off in dramatic fashion with an exciting first week.
Make sure you're with us EVERY DAY so you know what's REALLY happening in the world of sports!
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Keep an eye on the Dolphins in September. They're better than you think. And, they're likely to be better than the market thinks!
This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by VegasSportsMasters.com and JimHurley.com. For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.
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