The Ravens have no wiggle room at the top of the AFC North standings, and this weekend they have to face one of the hottest teams in the NFL.
The Miami Dolphins come to Baltimore riding a six-game winning streak, the second longest streak in the league behind the Dallas Cowboys, and they have found success behind a powerful ground attack led by running back Jay Ajayi.
Over Miami's six-game winning streak, Ajayi leads the NFL with 730 rushing yards and the Dolphins have averaged 152.3 rushing yards per game. Now the Dolphins have to face a Ravens defense that has given up the fewest rushing yards in the league (74.9 per game), in a matchup likely to be won in the trenches.
"We love playing against the best and taking the challenges," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "This is just another one; we love them, and we look forward to playing."
Facing a run-heavy team is typically a favorable matchup for the Ravens. Very few teams have been able to pound the ball on the ground against their defense over the years, and the unit has made stopping the run the top priority essentially since the franchise's inception.
"That is Raven football," Suggs said. "You do not want teams to run the ball on you. We take a lot of pride in that. We take a lot of pride in playing defense. We like to play defense around here, and it is a good feeling."
The Dolphins have also faced some stout run defenses in the midst of their current winning streak. They beat the San Diego Chargers and the New York Jets – both teams that rank in the top 10 in rushing yards allowed – and Ajayi actually crossed the century mark against the Jets.
"I think we've had the opportunity to go against a lot of great run defenses over the past couple of weeks, and it has been a great challenge to go out there and try and succeed in the run game," Ajayi said. "We know this week is another good defense we're going against, and we want to be up to the challenge."
The Dolphins have leaned heavily on their offensive line to pave the way for Ajayi, and there is some uncertainty about whether the unit will be at full strength this week.
After playing without three starting linemen Sunday, left tackle Brandon Albert and guard Laremy Tunsil have both returned to practice. Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey still remains sidelined with a hip problem. Miami is 4-0 this year when all five of their starting linemen have played.
Another question is how much the Dolphins will stick with their running game, even if the Ravens stuff it early. Baltimore essentially stopped the potent ground game of the Dallas Cowboys early in their Week 11 matchup, but the Cowboys still ran 30 times and finished with 118 yards.
"You try to talk yourself into [sticking with the run]. It's really kind of the flow of the game," Dolphins Head Coach Adam Gase said. "It's a tough thing to kind of keep your mind wrapped around as far as, 'Stay with the run. Stay with the run.' But, having the running back that we have makes me feel good as far as consistently staying with Jay, knowing he's a big man that plays for four quarters and does a great job as far as wearing a defense down and trying to consistently get positive yards."
An old mantra is that games are often won with the running game once the calendar turns to December, and the Ravens don't expect that to change this week. They know the Dolphins want to run the ball, and they'll have to find a way to stop that if they are going to remain atop the division and snap Miami's win streak.
"At the end of the day, it is wins and losses, and you want to win all your games, especially in the fourth quarter," Suggs said. "We believe more games are lost than won. We do not want to lose any games, we want to win them. The fourth quarter is where you get that done."