AFC Playoff Picture: Ravens-Dolphins A Potential Wild-Card Preview
Sunday's matchup between the Ravens and Miami Dolphins could end up being a sneak peek into the wild-card round of the AFC playoffs.
There are still five games left to play and plenty of jockeying for playoff positions, but if the season ended today, the Ravens (6-5) would finish as the AFC's No. 3 seed and would host the Dolphins (7-4) as the No. 6 wild-card seed at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens are taking on one of the hottest teams in the NFL right now, as Miami has won its last six games after starting the season 1-4. It's currently the longest winning streak in the conference.
Here's how the AFC playoff picture stands right now, per NFL.com:
1. New England Patriots (9-2): Remaining opponents … vs. Rams (4-7), vs. Ravens (6-5), at Broncos (7-4), vs. Jets (3-8), at Dolphins (7-4)
2. Oakland Raiders (9-2):Remaining opponents … vs. Bills (6-5), at Chiefs (8-3), at Chargers (5-6), vs. Colts (5-6), at Broncos (7-4)
3. Baltimore Ravens (6-5):Remaining opponents … vs. Dolphins (7-4), at Patriots (9-2), vs. Eagles (5-6), at Steelers (6-5), at Bengals (3-7-1)
4. Houston Texans (6-5):Remaining opponents … at Packers (5-6), at Colts (5-6), vs. Jaguars (2-9), vs. Bengals (3-7-1), at Titans (6-6)
5. Kansas City Chiefs (8-3): Remaining opponents … at Falcons (7-4), vs. Raiders (9-2), vs. Titans (6-6), vs. Broncos (7-4), at Chargers (5-6)
6. Miami Dolphins (7-4):Remaining opponents … at Ravens (6-5), vs. Cardinals (4-6-1), at Jets (3-8), at Bills (6-5), vs. Patriots (9-2)
In the hunt …
7. Denver Broncos (7-4):Remaining opponents … at Jaguars (2-9), at Titans (6-6), vs. Patriots (9-2), at Chiefs (8-3), vs. Raiders (9-2)
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5):Remaining opponents … vs. Giants (8-3), at Bills (6-5), at Bengals (3-7-1), vs. Ravens (6-5), vs. Browns (0-12)
9. Buffalo Bills (6-5):Remaining opponents … at Raiders (9-2), vs. Steelers (6-5), vs. Browns (0-12), vs. Dolphins (7-4), at Jets (3-8)
Both the Ravens and Dolphins sorely need the victory Sunday.
The game could have wild-card tiebreaker implications between the two teams themselves. Plus, the Ravens are trying to hold off the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5), who have an easier schedule on paper than Baltimore through the last five games.
"When you employ a future Hall of Fame quarterback with a knack for playing his best when it matters the most, you always have a chance," wrote NFL.com's Adam Schein. "And Ben Roethlisberger isn't the only Steeler with the ability to take over a game and dominate any defense – Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell are unstoppable weapons who rank among the cream of their positional crops, as well."
Neither the Ravens nor Dolphins are looking that far ahead, however. They both know there's a lot of work to be done to hold onto their playoff spots, starting with this weekend's important game.
"We still have a good Miami team coming in next week," outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil said after Sunday's win over the Cincinnati Bengals, who no longer looks to be in serious playoff contention. "We'll enjoy today, but we have to get back to work."
"You can't think too far ahead, because that's when you get in trouble for the week that you're preparing for," Dolphins Head Coach Adam Gase said Monday, per the Dolphins' website. "All of your focus needs to go on that one week."
Is Dixon Ravens' Best Running Back Since Rice?
It's still very early in rookie Kenneth Dixon's career, but he's already gotten plenty of praise. And, with the way he's playing, it's not going to stop anytime soon.
After just 40 rushing attempts and 14 receptions in seven career games, ESPN's Joe Banner, a former NFL executive for the Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles, is already declaring Dixon the Ravens' best running back since Ray Rice.
That's a high praise seeing as Justin Forsett got a Pro Bowl nod after he took over the reins in the wake of Rice's departure.
Dixon still has a lot of work to do before reaching Pro Bowl status, but he's shown plenty of promise since returning from a knee injury that held him out of the first four games. In his return, Dixon has shown an ability to elude defenders and break tackles, as he rarely goes down upon first contact. He also has strong catching ability out of the backfield.
Sunday's game against the Bengals was one of his best yet.
"Sure, 13 carries for 49 yards against the Bengals isn't exactly Ezekiel Elliott territory," wrote The Baltimore Sun's Childs Walker. "… [But] the Ravens moved on from Justin Forsett in part because of their faith in Dixon's all-around talent. Now that he's healthy, we're all seeing his promise.
"He and Terrance West are both tough runners whose styles seem likely to play well in the cold weather to come." Ravens' Best Pass-Rushing Combination Is Back
When you combine an effective Terrell Suggs with a healthy Dumervil, good things are bound to happen.
Finally, the duo was back together again Sunday, after only playing in two games together since Sept. 13, 2015.
"The Ravens' best pass-rushing combination is back," wrote CSNMidAtlantic.com's Clifton Brown.
"Elvis Dumervil punctuated his return after seven weeks with a game-clinching strip sack. Terrell Suggs continued to play with a torn biceps like a man on a mission, with two strip sacks during Sunday's victory over the Bengals. If you are looking for reasons why the Ravens (6-5) can win the AFC North, put the Suggs-Dumervil combo high on your list."
J. Smith Still 'Close' To A Return
On Sunday, the Ravens won their first game this season when top cornerback Jimmy Smith either didn't play at all or left with an injury.
Head Coach John Harbaugh was pleased with the improvement of the secondary without Smith, but the Ravens have a better chance of winning when he's on the field. So when will that be?
"He's close. He's close," Harbaugh said Monday. "He's been able to run for about a week. So, we'll see."
Expect media and fans to keep another close on the injury report this week, as the Ravens could use Smith in a pivotal game against the Dolphins.
"The Ravens hope to see Smith return this week as the Miami Dolphins come to town sporting a six-game winning streak, their longest in over a decade," wrote WNST's Luke Jones. "The Dolphins offense is built around surprising star running back Jay Ajayi, but quarterback Ryan Tannehill works with a trio of receivers in Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, and Kenny Stills each with at least 480 receiving yards this season."
Harbaugh Requests Prayers For Former Ravens TE Konrad Reuland
Harbaugh opened his Monday press conference with a request for prayers for former Ravens tight end Konrad Reuland. He was on the Ravens practice squad for several different stints from 2014-15, and was promoted to the active roster for a brief period in December of 2015.
The 29-year-old Stanford product is in the intensive care unit at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles with a brain aneurysm, and is scheduled for surgery today.
"Just want to ask really for some prayers for Konrad Reuland," Harbaugh said. "He was put into the UCLA Medical Center Intensive Care Unit today. He had an aneurysm in his brain, and he's going to undergo surgery tomorrow. So he's in intensive care today and tonight. So we just ask that you remember him in your prayers. Konrad Reuland, tremendous guy, and our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family tonight and tomorrow for the surgery."