Following an entropic offseason—one which featured coaching changes, a rookie QB, reality television and domestic abuse—the Miami Dolphins finally get to hit the field in Houston this Sunday.
While getting back to real football will certainly be nice for the 'Phins, it's hard to imagine drawing a much tougher assignment. The Houston Texans, whose annual tragic flaw is health, are coming of a full offseason of healing. They also come in with a chip on their shoulder; Houston genuinely believes it would have won the Super Bowl with Matt Schaub playing last season.
Let's take a look at the Vegas line and three predictions for a solid opening-week battle in the heart of Texas.
Current Line: Texans -12
This line, which opened earlier this year at a modest Texans minus-6, has exploded over the past month or so. That proliferation can be attributed, in part, to Ryan Tannehill's ascension to the top of Miami's QB depth chart.
Still, something's not right with this line. Miami was, after all, one of the better teams in the league down the stretch last season. Cantor bookmaker Mike Colbert elaborates in an interview with ESPN's Chad Millman (Insider access):
"I think we probably underestimated how good Houston is and overestimated Miami. We were high on Miami because of a strong finish last year, and our computer model spit them out as a good team. It still overvalues them. We can't stop taking bets on that game. It's going to go to 13. As I sit here, there are bets coming in on Houston."
This is a classic case of public perception outweighing reality. The public perception is that Houston, sans Matt Schaub's injury last season, could have—nay, would have—been playing in the Super Bowl. More importantly, there's a public perception that Miami, particularly with Ryan Tannehill under center, will be one of the league's worst teams this year.
The reality lies somewhere in the middle.
The Texans are slightly worse than people give them credit for, and Miami is slightly (if not significantly) better than people give it credit for. Don't get me wrong: Houston is a better team than Miami. But if Vegas' computer models are spitting out the Dolphins as a good team...well...let's just say it's never wise to argue against Vegas.
Prediction 1: Expect A Relatively Low-Scoring Affair
There are five rookie QBs starting their career this Sunday, and Tannehill might face the toughest assignment of the bunch.
Yes, Andrew Luck might have a rough day in Chicago. And sure, Brandon Weeden might be tossed around like a rag doll by the Eagles' defensive line. But a healthy Texans defense, in Houston, is about as unforgiving an environment as you could dream up for a first start.
While Tannehill and his dearth of receiving options are expected to go nowhere, the Texans are expected to move through Miami like a knife through butter. The public notion, again, being that the Dolphins are a stinky, no-good team with a stinky, no-good defense.
This, however, is very untrue.
The Miami defense is woefully underrated, featuring one of the league's top pass-rushers in Cameron Wake and a do-it-all linebacker in Karlos Dansby. It's still probably a below-average defense—especially following the departure of Vontae Davis—it's just not swiss-cheese-porous the way some people are projecting them to be.
Week 1 tends to be lower-scoring in general, so Miami could surprise folks by keeping the score here in the mid-20s.
Prediction 2: Reggie Bush Will Get A Lot of Touches
If dog is the best friend of man, running back is definitely the best friend of rookie QB.
Reggie Bush still hasn't justified the lofty expectations coming out of college, but, if nothing else, his brilliant 2011 season ensured that he'll never be talked about as a draft bust. Never one to settle, however, Bush has set lofty goals for 2012: He wants to lead the NFL in rushing.
I'm not exactly sprinting to the counter to put money on him, but the selection of Tannehill certainly helps his chances. The Dolphins will run a circumspect offense in Tannehill's first start, force-feeding their former, former Heisman-winner all game long.
Even if behind, Bush is probably the Dolphins' best receiving threat. Miami would rather see Tannehill check it down than throw deep to Legedu Naanee.
Prediction 3: Texans 27, Dolphins 17
In what could be a surprising war of attrition, the Texans will eventually prove too much for Miami to overcome. Tannehill has shone this offseason, but down the stretch, in his first career start, he can't compete with the season aplomb of Matt Schaub.
The Dolphins can, however, easily cover this 12-point spread. They aren't a playoff team, by any stretch of the imagination, but they're also much better than people are giving them credit for. They could catch Houston off-guard early, or they could also be a good bet for a back-door cover.
Either way, 12 points is too much for this one.