The New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins will bring a fitting close to Week 16 on Monday Night Football. Sunday's slate of action delivered several stunning results that had a profound impact on the playoff picture across both conferences, and Monday's outcome will achieve more of the same.
The Dolphins opened the 2021 campaign at shockingly disappointing 1-7, but have stunningly won six straight contests to crawl back to .500. A seventh consecutive win on Monday would catapult the Dolphins above the Baltimore Ravens and into the seventh and final playoff spot in the AFC. It would represent an impressive turnaround for head coach Brian Flores and his band of Dolphins. Sean Payton's Saints, meanwhile, currently match Miami's 7-7 record. A win for the Saints would see them enter a cluttered three-way tie for an NFC playoff spot alongside the likes of the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles.
These opponents are foreign to one another, but their upcoming showdown carries importance in abundance. We've identified three player-versus-player matchups that will help determine the outcome.
JAYLEN WADDLE VS. CHAUNCEY GARDNER-JOHNSON
This appetizing matchup will force a pair of rising stars to do battle with one another. Dolphins rookie receiver Jaylen Waddle has served as a phenomenon for Tua Tagovailoa and Miami's offense as a whole. Waddle has been a workhorse throughout his debut campaign, having recorded at least eight receptions in six separate appearances this offseason, including his last three showings. The former Alabama standout has captured a stunning 86 receptions thus far, good for 849 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Tagovailoa looks to target Waddle early and often, and his return from the team's COVID-Reserve List is much welcomed.
Waddle has done the majority of his damage from the slot. He should see plenty of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. A do-it-all weapon for New Orleans' secondary, Gardner-Johnson is an extremely versatile defensive weapon that qualifies as one of the league's best and most intriguing rising defensive stars. Still just 24 years of age, Gardner-Johnson's growth and development have been startling. Naysayers should look no further than the role Gardner-Johnson played in New Orleans' stunning shutout victory over Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers a week ago. Gardner-Johnson was outstanding in that contest, recording seven tackles, one interception, and one pass breakup. Gardner-Johnson's interception showcased excellent smarts and technique as he expertly baited Brady into making the throw he wanted him to.
Waddle versus Gardner-Johnson is must-watch TV.
ALVIN KAMARA AND MARK INGRAM VS. MIAMI’S FRONT SEVEN
New Orleans will enter this contest with their fourth-string quarterback under center due to a mixture of injuries and COVID-related issues. Former Notre Dame signal-caller Ian Book will make his NFL debut under the bright lights of primetime. Book seems woefully unprepared to be making this start in an ever-important contest, and the Saints reportedly attempted to lure Drew Brees out of retirement in hopes of preventing Book from earning the nod. Their efforts failed, and Book has now been catapulted into a make-or-break spot.
Payton will likely lean on his two-headed monster at the running back position by cultivating a game plan that intends to limit Book's importance by placing them on the shoulders of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Kamara may be the league's most effective and talented dual-threat weapon at running back, and the former Tennessee man is in line to receive a heavy workload on Monday night. Ingram, meanwhile, is capable of spelling Kamara in traditional looks.
Flores and Dolphins defensive coordinator Josh Boyer will be wise to New Orleans' attempts to limit Book's involvement under center. Expect an aggressive Dolphins front seven that will sell out to stop the run. The Dolphins have been largely successful in that area, allowing the opposition to rush for an average of just 103.7 yards per contest. Payton and the Saints' offensive cast face a difficult challenge.
DEVANTE PARKER VS. MARSHON LATTIMORE
Miami's most talented outside receiver, DeVante Parker, has unfortunately missed much of the 2021 season. The former Louisville receiver is notably healthy now, and ready to help his Dolphins make their final playoff push. Parker was especially effective a week ago, securing four-of-eight targets for 68 receiving yards and his first touchdown reception since Week 4. At his best, Parker is an excellent outside receiver that creates headaches for opposing cornerbacks.
On Monday, that cornerback will be New Orleans' most talented cover-man, Marshon Lattimore. A three-time Pro Bowler, Lattimore isn't quite playing to the standards we've come to expect of him in 2021. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen hasn't utilized Lattimore in one-vs-one shadow situations in recent matches, and that strategy is expected to continue on Monday. It means Parker may see a healthy dosage of Saints rookie cornerback Paulson Adebo on occasion as well, but Parker and Lattimore will undoubtedly line up opposite one another more often than not.
Parker has recorded at least 60 receiving yards in his last four games (dating back to early October).