No word better describes what’s at stake as the Ravens travel to Sun Life Stadium to take on the Miami Dolphins.
The winner of Sunday’s game isn’t guaranteed a playoff spot in a crowded AFC wild-card picture, but losing in Miami would be a critical blow to either team. After the Ravens lost to the current No. 5 seed San Diego last Sunday, they can hardly afford to be on the wrong end of another head-to-head tiebreaker should they lose to the Dolphins.
In addition to having the NFL’s 31st-ranked pass defense, the Ravens took a major blow up front with Thursday’s announcement of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata being suspended for the remainder of the regular season due to a performance-enhancing drug violation. It’s just the latest trial for a 7-5 Ravens team that’s faced much adversity on and off the field.
Sunday will mark the 10th time these AFC teams have played in the regular season with the Dolphins holding a 5-4 edge and a 4-2 record in Miami. However, the Ravens are 4-0 against the Dolphins in the John Harbaugh era, which includes a 27-9 wild-card round win at the end of the 2008 season.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to improve to 8-5 in their quest to return to the playoffs …
1. Miami defensive end Cameron Wake will pick up a sack, but Rick Wagner will hold his own against the talented pass rusher. The second-year right tackle will face one of his biggest challenges of the season in trying to hold his own against the three-time Pro Bowl selection, but Wagner shouldn’t be counted out as he is the highest-graded pass-blocking — and highest-graded overall — right tackle in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. Miami possesses a formidable pass rush, but the Ravens have held up very well in pass protection this year with quarterback Joe Flacco only being sacked 15 times. They’ll need another strong performance Sunday, and it will start with Wagner on the right side.
2. Justin Forsett will not run for 100 yards, but the Ravens will still gain 150 on the ground against the Dolphins defense. The 29-year-old and the team have downplayed the significance of his knee injury, but it has to be a concern that his limited participation in Friday’s practice was his only on-field work of the week. The good news is the Dolphins’ run defense has dropped to 21st in the NFL and has given up 478 yards on the ground in the last two games against Denver and the New York Jets. We’ll see more of a committee approach than the Ravens have used in weeks as backups Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro will pick up some slack, but Forsett will still finish as the leading rusher on Sunday.
3. Dolphins slot receiver Jarvis Landry will catch a touchdown and lead his team in receiving yards on Sunday. The Ravens hope the return of cornerback Asa Jackson will help a struggling secondary, but Miami has too many weapons in the passing game to not be concerned. We’ll see Jackson line up inside in the nickel package, but he won’t have much luck slowing Landry, who has been very impressive in his rookie season with 57 catches for 518 yards and five touchdowns. Ryan Tannehill will try to get rid of the ball quickly in the face of an imposing Baltimore pass rush, which means quick outs and slants to Landry will be in order throughout the day and he’ll be the go-to target for Miami.
4. Jacoby Jones returns a kick deep into Miami territory to swing the momentum of the game in the second half. There’s no disputing how disappointing this year has been for the wide receiver and return specialist, but you hope Week 13 was a preview of bigger things to come down the stretch for Jones. His two catches for 35 yards as a receiver were nice, but his 72-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter set the Ravens up at the San Diego 30 before the offense had to settle for a field goal. Miami ranks 28th in the NFL in kick return coverage and 24th in punt return coverage, which should have Jones and special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg licking their chops. A big return will set up a touchdown in the second half.
5. On a day when both quarterbacks have strong days, the Ravens find a way to secure their biggest win of the season in a 24-20 final. It’s tough to get a read on this one considering how up and down both teams have been throughout the year. You wonder if the Ravens will get off the mat after a tough loss to the Chargers and the suspension of Ngata while the Dolphins aren’t experienced in these kinds of high-stakes games. Flacco and Tannehill will both throw for over 200 yards, but the Dolphins are coming off a short week following a Monday night road win and that run defense is already wearing down significantly. That will be the difference as the Ravens pick up a crucial win in keeping their playoff hopes alive.