December football has arrived.
Aiming to return to the postseason for just the second time since Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens will now play three of their next four games against teams with winning records and own the toughest remaining schedule in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. In other words, John Harbaugh’s team will have to earn it if an AFC North title is in the cards.
Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins come to town riding a six-game winning streak in their effort to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2008. First-year head coach Adam Gase has the Dolphins playing winning football despite a 1-4 start, but a plus-9 point differential reflects how close their games have been on a weekly basis all year.
It’s time to go on the record as these teams play for the 12th time in their regular-season history. The Dolphins own a 6-5 advantage, but their only win in Baltimore came at Memorial Stadium on Oct. 19, 1997. This marks the fourth straight year these teams have met, but the previous three were in Miami.
1. Kenneth Dixon will gain a career-high 100 total yards. We’ve gradually seen Dixon cut into starter Terrance West’s workload, but the rookie finished with more touches (17 to 16) and played eight more snaps against Cincinnati last week. The Dolphins rank 30th in rush defense and are allowing 4.6 yards per carry. The Miami front is built to aggressively rush the passer, so offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg should use draws, counters, and screens to exploit that aggressiveness. If the Ravens are to finally get their running game going for the stretch run, Sunday seems like the time to do it.
2. Kenny Stills will catch a long touchdown against the Ravens secondary. Jarvis Landry is the most accomplished Dolphins receiver and 2015 first-round pick DeVante Parker has emerged in recent weeks, but Stills ranks third among qualified players in yards per catch (18.5) and has five touchdowns on throws traveling more than 20 yards through the air. The Ravens are tied for fourth in fewest pass plays of 25 or more yards allowed, but Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL when working in a clean pocket this season. That will lead to a score.
3. The team that throws the ball more often will lose on Sunday. Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi has earned much praise with back-to-back 200-yard games in October and another 100-yard rushing performance in Week 9, but he’s averaged 3.8 yards per carry in three contests since and will be playing the NFL’s top-ranked run defense. On the other side, Joe Flacco is averaging 40.9 passing attempts per game, but he’s thrown for more than 300 yards twice and has only two contests in which he’s thrown for two or more touchdowns this year. Both teams need to run the ball effectively to thrive.
4. Jimmy Smith will come away with a red-zone interception in the second half. After missing two games with a back injury, the No. 1 cornerback is expected to play. Miami could be without the 6-foot-3 Parker, but Smith’s presence on the field will be key against a passing game ranking eighth in the NFL in yards per attempt (7.8) despite sitting 28th in passing yards per game. Despite playing his best football since the first half of the 2014 season, Smith has yet to secure an interception this season. That will change on Sunday with Tannehill being forced to throw more than usual in the second half.
5. The Ravens win in typical fashion in a 20-17 final to stay in first place in the AFC North. Week after week, we’ve watched an offense incapable of putting together a full 60 minutes — or even anything close to that. I don’t expect that to suddenly change in the final month of the season. However, the Dolphins’ biggest offensive strength is a perfect match for what the Ravens do best. Baltimore will contain Ajayi and rattle Tannehill at the most critical times, Justin Tucker will connect on two field goals, and the Ravens offense will put together one or two good drives. It’s never fancy, but the Ravens couldn’t have asked for much more than a 7-5 record after their season was in great peril a month ago.