BALTIMORE — When the Miami Dolphins returned to their team facility this week, they asked each other about what they did for Christmas and headed to their meeting rooms.

There was no talk about playoff scenarios heading into a showdown between the AFC’s top teams on Sunday, when the Ravens (12-3) host the Dolphins (11-4) at M&T Bank Stadium (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

“We understand what’s at stake,” Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said Wednesday. “I think if you overdo it, it could get to a point where you start chasing ghosts in a way.

“Whereas if you study the way you study, and you do things the way you’ve done things, and then if you add just a little one each time on top of that, we could possibly be the team that we’ve always wanted to be since training camp.”

This marks the fourth time in the last 30 seasons that the top two teams from a single conference will meet in the final two weeks of the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Baltimore, which has won five in a row and is a 3.5-point favorite, can clinch the AFC’s No. 1 seed, gain a first-round bye and secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by beating the Dolphins. The Ravens have earned the AFC’s top spot once in their 27 years of existence.

Miami can overtake the Ravens for the No. 1 seed by winning its final two games. The Dolphins play host to the Buffalo Bills in the regular-season finale.

“It’s an exciting situation to be in,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You get into this time of the year, [and] you play yourself into these types of a game where you have an opportunity where the game means so much, where winning one game brings such a big reward because of what you’ve done up until this point.

“That’s an earned thing, and the Dolphins have earned the same thing. So, it’s that kind of a game.”

ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Dolphins reporter Marcel Louis-Jacques break down why each team is a strong bet to win Sunday, and give a vulnerability and X factor.

Why each team is a strong bet to win

Ravens: Lamar Jackson. The betting favorite for NFL MVP, Jackson has willed the Ravens to victories this season, whether it’s sidestepping pass-rushers to buy more time to throw or running for a big play.

Jackson has Baltimore averaging 30.1 points over its last nine games despite being without its most explosive running backs (J.K. Dobbins and Keaton Mitchell) and most productive target (tight end Mark Andrews). Plus, Jackson has been perfect at M&T Bank Stadium at this time of year. He is 9-0 at home in December in his career, which is the most home wins without a loss in the final month of the calendar year since 1950, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. –Hensley


Dolphins: Offense. The Dolphins own the NFL’s highest-scoring offense at 30.9 points per game. They also lead the league with 411.5 yards per game, 275.1 passing yards per game, and 4.98 rushing yards per play.

When fully healthy, there are four players on this offense capable of scoring from anywhere on the field — Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, De’Von Achane and Raheem Mostert — but that’s not the only reason Miami is a true threat in the AFC.

The Dolphins’ defense ranks in the top five in yards allowed per game (fourth at 296.5), rushing yards allowed per game (fifth at 90.8) and sacks per pass attempt. They trail only the Ravens in terms of total sacks (54-52), which is impressive considering Miami’s best pass-rusher, Jaelan Phillips, tore an Achilles in Week 12.

This is a well-rounded team that has proven itself elite on both sides of the ball. — Louis-Jacques

Why each team is vulnerable

Ravens: The ground game. Stopping the run is the one area where the Baltimore defense hasn’t dominated. In three losses, the Ravens have given up an average of 134.6 yards rushing.

Baltimore has allowed two 100-yard rushers (the Los Angeles Rams’ Kyren Williams and San Francisco 49ers’ Christian McCaffrey) in its past three games.

The Dolphins are fifth in the NFL at 136.4 rushing yards per game.

On offense, the Ravens lead the NFL in rushing, but they haven’t gotten much out of the ground game lately outside of Jackson. Current running backs Gus Edwards and Justice Hill have combined to average 3.6 yards per carry over the last six games. It had been a struggle at times to run out the clock in the fourth quarter. –Hensley


Dolphins: The injuries are starting to pile up. Thursday’s news that Waddle is not expected to play because of a high ankle sprain is a major blow. Waddle has 1,014 receiving yards, and he caught 11 passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns against the Ravens last season.

Safety Jevon Holland hasn’t played since Week 12 because of MCL sprains in both knees, although he has participated more in practices since Wednesday. Right guard Robert Hunt has not played since Week 13 because of a hamstring injury. Meanwhile, left guard Isaiah Wynn remains on injured reserve with a quad injury, center Connor Williams is out for the season with a torn ACL, and right tackle Austin Jackson is fighting through an oblique injury.

Aside from the injuries, three of Miami’s four losses have come on the road, all against opponents with winning records. While beating the Cowboys last week helped stall the narrative that Miami can’t beat teams with winning records, the Dolphins need to prove they can win away from South Florida. If victorious, it would be the first time in franchise history the Dolphins beat 10-win teams in consecutive weeks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. — Louis-Jacques

Top matchup to watch

Ravens: Tagovailoa and Hill vs. Ravens secondary. Tagovailoa leads the NFL in completions (18) and touchdown passes (nine) on throws that travel at least 25 yards in the air. Hill has caught seven of those touchdown passes, which are more than double than any other player this season on such throws.

The Ravens have ranked among the best against the pass since allowing Hill to catch touchdown passes of 48 and 60 yards in last season’s fourth quarter collapse. Since that Week 2 loss to Miami, Baltimore has limited teams to 34 touchdown passes, which is the third-fewest in the NFL.

“Obviously, it was a tough pill to swallow for us,” Harbaugh said. “[But] we learned a lot about ourselves [and] our coverages.” –Hensley


Dolphins: The Dolphins’ offensive line against Baltimore’s front seven. Baltimore leads the NFL in sacks, and Miami’s battered offensive line will face its toughest task of the season.

Aside from adequate pass protection, Miami will rely on a strong run game to keep Tagovailoa upright. Mostert leads the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns and could become the first player since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006 to score 20-plus rushing TDs in a season.

If Baltimore has to respect the threat of a run, its front seven can’t just focus on pressuring Jackson. — Louis-Jacques

X factors

Ravens: Turnovers. The Ravens have forced an NFL-high 26 turnovers — their most in six years — including five interceptions in Monday’s win at San Francisco.

Baltimore’s plus-10 turnover differential is tied for the best in the league with the Steelers and Buccaneers. The Ravens have scored 91 points off takeaways this season, which ranks second only to Miami (99 points off takeaways).

Ball security has been key to Baltimore’s late-season run. During their five-game winning streak, no team has turned the ball over less than the Ravens. The Ravens have two giveaways in a span of 332 offensive plays (Jackson has thrown two interceptions). –Hensley


Dolphins: De’Von Achane. Against this pass rush, the rookie could provide an explosive safety valve out of the backfield. Especially with Waddle’s status unknown, Miami could use all the home-run hitters it can get come Sunday.

Since returning from a knee injury in Week 13, Achane has cracked 100 scrimmage yards only once, despite double-digit touches in three of the four games.

He averaged 11.5 yards per touch over 45 touches during his explosive three-game stretch from Week 3 to Week 5, but that’s an unreasonable number to expect from a running back. It is, however, an example of what the third-round pick can accomplish. — Louis-Jacques

By admin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *