It's only Week 14, but Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins feels like postseason football.
Both teams are sitting at 7-5 and in the middle of a hunt for an AFC playoff spot. The road gets much tougher for whichever team loses, and both squads have stressed the importance of winning Sunday's game at Miami's Sun Life Stadium.
"I feel like this game coming up is a playoff game for us," running back Justin Forsett said. "It is important for us to go out and get this 'W.'"
The margin for error is razor thin as the Ravens look to get back on track after a crushing loss to the San Diego Chargers last week. The Ravens have a history of playing well at this time of the year – they are 17-11 in December/January regular-season games under Head Coach John Harbaugh – and they need another late-year run to return to the playoffs.
"December football, it's where teams separate themselves," Harbaugh said. "Obviously, it's different."
Three Matchups To Watch
CB Lardarius Webb vs. WR Mike Wallace
The Ravens are coming off a tough game in the secondary where they allowed quarterback Philip Rivers to throw for 383 yards and three touchdowns. Webb made it clear when he met with the media this week that the group has to improve, and he'll face a familiar foe this week in Wallace. The former Steeler said that playing the Ravens still carries some extra meaning for him, and the two players know each other well from their matchups over the years.
OLB Terrell Suggs vs. LT Ja'Wuan James
The last time the Ravens played the Dolphins, Suggs went on a tear with three sacks in the fourth quarter. With a depleted group in the secondary, the Ravens are counting on Suggs and the defensive front to put the pressure on quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The veteran pass rusher has said in the past that he likes playing in the warm Florida weather, and the forecast is calling for temperatures in the mid-70s Sunday afternoon.
WR Steve Smith Sr. vs. CB Brent Grimes
This will be a fun showdown to watch, as Grimes and Smith are both high intensity players who bring an edge to the field. The veteran Miami cornerback is one of the best in the AFC, and Smith has been one of Baltimore's best offensive players this year. Smith is coming off a quiet game where he caught just one pass for 2 yards, and the Ravens will likely look to get him more involved this week.
Three Keys to the Game
Withstand Ngata Loss
The Ravens had to deal with surprising news this week when All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was suspended for the final four games of the regular season for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Ngata was the anchor in the middle of the defense, and now the Ravens will have to rely on younger, less experienced players to fill the shoes of the nine-year veteran. The Dolphins rank 10th in the NFL in rushing offense, and the Ravens will now have to rely on defensive linemen Timmy Jernigan, DeAngelo Tyson and Terrence Cody to hold down the middle of the defense.
Tighten Up In Red Zone
The Ravens need to play better in the red zone on both sides of the ball. The Ravens were one of the NFL's best red-zone defenses earlier in the season, but they've fallen off in that area lately. If the defense can get back to its bend-but-don't-break style that it was playing earlier in the year, then that will make a big difference for the group. And offensively, the Ravens need to punch the ball in the end zone more often when they get inside the 20-yard line. Baltimore settled for field goals on four of their seven trips inside the red zone last week, and they are focused on improving in that area.
Big Day From Offense Sometimes the best defense can be a good offense. The Ravens are on pace to have their best offensive season in franchise history, and they may need that kind of production to get a critical victory this week. If the defense continues to struggle against the pass, then the Ravens will have to rely on quarterback Joe Flacco and the offense to put a big number up on the scoreboard. Defense has long been the identity of the Ravens, but the offense may carry the load down the stretch.