Week 13 Preview: Ravens vs. Dolphins is Suddenly Full of Meaning
Just one season ago, the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins met for a forgettable Week 13 matchup that meant nothing to the casual NFL fan. This 1:00 game in Miami featured two teams with losing records and extremely unrealistic playoff hopes. It was a game only to be watched by the diehard fans or those fans who inexplicably enjoy watching terrible football.
The Dolphins were the victor that day by a score of 15-13. The game proved to be a very tight defensive struggle, with the Dolphins getting their only two scores of the game within 20 seconds of each other. The first score was a DeVante Parker receiving touchdown, while the second one was the weekly Matt Schaub interception touchdown.
These scores occurred late in the second quarter, giving the Dolphins a 15-0 lead. The Ravens shut out the Dolphins in the second half and they scored twice to make the game close in the final minutes. But ultimately, the injury-ravaged Ravens couldn't overcome the fifteen point deficit and so the Dolphins won to improve to 5-7. The Ravens dropped to 4-8 and saw the end of their ridiculously faint hopes of running the table and making the playoffs at 9-7.
Almost exactly a year later, the two teams meet again and this time their meeting is one of the marquee games of Week 13. The 7-4 Dolphins are one of the hottest teams in the NFL, having won six consecutive games and they currently possess the final AFC Wildcard spot. The 6-5 Ravens have been up and down, but they've now won three of four to take the lead in what has been a down year for the AFC North.
With the AFC playoff picture very tight, the winner of this game will still be in the mix, while the loser could possibly drop to being on the outside looking in. For both these teams, a win here would go a long way to proving their playoff legitimacy.
The Dolphins have not had a winning season since 2008 and despite being wildcard contenders in recent seasons, they've earned a reputation for choking in December games. The Ravens have had the opposite reputation with six playoff appearances in the last nine seasons. However, a playoff miss this year would mark the third time in the last four years that they failed to qualify for the playoffs.
In the Dolphins' six game winning streak, they've seen the emergence of a star player in running back Jay Ajayi. Ajayi ran for 200+ yards in the first two games of the streak. Thanks in large part to him, the Dolphins have the sixth ranked rushing offense in the NFL, averaging 116.0 yards per game.
Their strength just happens to be the thing that the Ravens are best at taking away. The Ravens own the top ranked rush defense in football (74.9 yards per game). However, their rush defense has shown some cracks by allowing 97 yards to Ezekiel Elliott and 100 yards to Matt Forte. If Ajayi is really as good as his recent performances have shown, he may still be able to have a decent day against the Ravens' defense.
Ajayi is not the only reason that the Dolphins offense has been having success. Ryan Tannehill has been playing some of the best football of his career of late. During the win streak, he has thrown nine touchdowns to one interception. He hasn't been asked to do a whole lot, thanks to the emergence of Ajayi and a solid run game that he can depend on.
Because they don't have to pass a lot, their stats in that category aren't so impressive. The Dolphins are currently ranked 28th in passing yards per game (216.4). Tannehill has had fewer than 30 passing attempts in three of the last six games. But the Dolphins may have incentive to pass more this week, if cornerback Jimmy Smith misses his third consecutive game with a back injury.
Smith is a big reason why the Ravens have the sixth-ranked pass defense (222.9 yards per game). Rookie Tavon Young has been all right as the starter in Smith's absence, but he struggled some against Dez Bryant when the Ravens faced the Dallas Cowboys. Both him and Shareece Wright could struggle some against Dolphins receivers Jarvis Landry, Parker and Kenny Stills.
On the other side of the ball, the Dolphins have made some strides in fielding a respectable defense. They are ranked towards the middle of the pack in most categories, ranking 16th in points allowed per game (21.8) and 20th in total yards allowed per game (361.9). Their rush defense has struggled though, allowing 132.2 yards per game, good for 30th in the NFL.
The ascension of Kenneth Dixon has led to the Ravens having a two-back approach on offense. Dixon's speed and shiftiness contrast nicely with Terrance West's power running ability. The two backs combined for 97 yards in the win against the Cincinnati Bengals last week, so there is some hope that the run game is making some strides.
The Ravens' passing game though, continues to struggle. Unlike Tannehill, Joe Flacco is not in one of the best stretches of his career. Flacco has 11 touchdowns to 10 interceptions and he's had four multi-interception games. The Ravens continue a strange trend of starting out fast, but slowing down on offense late in games, especially in the passing game.
The Dolphins' ninth ranked pass defense (229.7 yards per game) is headlined by recent acquisition Byron Maxwell, who has been playing some of the best football of his career. The Dolphins also continue to have a ferocious pass rush with Cameron Wake still playing at an elite level at age 34. Between Wake and a diminished Mario Williams, Ronnie Stanley and Ricky Wagner could have their hands full protecting Flacco.
Similar to last year, these teams match up very evenly with each other. The only really big difference is that they are now legitimate playoff contenders as opposed to bottom-feeders already looking ahead to the draft. With the Ravens still having road games against the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers this month, it's important that they take advantage of having homefield against the Dolphins. Otherwise, they could be pressed into must-win situations in later matchups that are on the road.
James Reagan is the lead writer for the Baltimore Ravens and can be followed on Twitter @james__reagan.