NFL Preview – Baltimore (7-5) at Miami (7-5) (ET)

By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor

(SportsNetwork.com) – Oh, to be in the NFC South in 2014.

If the Baltimore Ravens could jump regions and conferences prior to Week 14’s
slate of games, they’d head to Miami’s Sun Life Stadium on Sunday with a
comfortable two-game lead and at least one eye toward finalizing arrangements
for a home playoff game in early January.

Instead, the trip to South Florida – given the jumbled competitive reality
that is the AFC this year – is far more in the class of full-on business
desperation than leisurely holiday comfort.

The Ravens and Dolphins are two of six conference teams with 7-5 records
through 12 games, which means their get-together takes on particular urgency
as the season’s final quarter gets under way.

Baltimore seemed destined for a more stable 8-4 record and a firm hold on
playoff destiny heading into the fourth quarter last week, but instead saw a
10-point lead evaporate into a 34-33 loss to San Diego.

It was a second straight prolific performance for an opposing quarterback,
with Philip Rivers amassing 383 yards and three touchdown passes just six days
after Drew Brees threw for 420 yards and three scores in a game the Ravens
ultimately won, 34-27, at New Orleans.

Ravens QB Joe Flacco had two TD passes last week before the late meltdown.

Miami enters the game with just 27 completions of more than 20 yards and just
one TD pass of that length, but Baltimore coach John Harbaugh isn’t lessening
the emphasis on secondary performance.

“We’ve got to make some plays,” he said. “That’s really what it boils down
to.”

The return of starting cornerback Asa Jackson from an injured toe could help.
The third-year man last played in Week 5 before being placed on the returnable
injured reserve list. He had 16 tackles and a pass deflection in early season
action before the hiatus.

The loss of Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata certainly won’t help.
Ngata was suspended four games by the NFL for violating the league’s policy on
performance-enhancing substances Thursday.

Ngata said he took Adderall and apologized for the transgression that will
keep him out of Baltimore’s remaining four games of the regular season.

“I made a mistake, and I own this,” said Ngata in a statement Thursday. “I
took Adderall and take full responsibility for doing this. I am deeply sorry
and broken up over this. I let down my family, my teammates, Ravens fans and
myself. My hope is that the Ravens make the playoffs, and I believe they can
do this. And, then I can come back and help us win.”

Ngata, in his ninth season with the Ravens, is the center of Baltimore’s
defense as the prominent run stopper in the club’s 3-4 scheme. He has 31
tackles with two sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions in 12 games
this season.

“This is disappointing news for the Ravens,” said general manager Ozzie
Newsome. “We are disappointed with Haloti, but no more than he is with
himself.”

The Dolphins defeated the New York Jets on Monday to improve to 7-5, but
they’ve allowed better than 200 rushing yards to two consecutive opponents for
the first time in 24 years. Coincidentally, the Ravens’ backfield is occupied
by Justin Forsett, who leads the NFL with a 5.6-yard average per carry and has
gained 400 yards while scoring four times in Baltimore’s last three games.

Flacco has four passing TDs and no interceptions in the same three-game
stretch, and Baltimore for the season is sixth in the league with an average
of 27.3 points per game.

“It’s hard to overload the box because they have those threats on the
perimeter,” Miami coach Joe Philbin said. “I think the key for them has been
balance.”

Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed just 21 of 40 passes in a three-
point home loss to the Ravens in 2013, but he’s been among the hottest QBs in
the league lately – completing at least 70 percent of his throws in five
consecutive games. The last two passers with six-game runs of 70 percent or
better were named Favre (in 2007) and Manning (Peyton, in 2008 and 2012).

Tannehill was 25-for-35 for 235 yards against the Jets.

“Their offense is a spread-option type of an offense that Tannehill runs very
effectively – a lot of weapons,” Harbaugh said. “They spread the ball out,
they spread the formations out, they run the read option, they run the dive,
quarterback keepers, quarterback-follow plays.”

Miami, which is tied with Buffalo in the AFC East – two games behind New
England – faces the Patriots next week before finishing with Minnesota and a
home rematch with the Jets.

The Dolphins last made the playoffs in 2008.

“We’ve talked to them more about the month of December and the importance of
each and every game in December,” Philbin said. “This one that we have coming
up, Baltimore, both on paper and on film, is as good as team as we’ve seen.”

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Elvis is in the Backfield

Baltimore pass rusher Elvis Dumervil has 12 1/2 sacks in 2014 and was a
chronic thorn in Rivers’ side last week, forcing three hurries and hitting the
San Diego QB twice. Right tackle Dallas Thomas draws the assignment against
him after allowing three pressures, but no sacks, in Monday’s defeat of the
Jets. Thomas could be aided by Tannehill’s ability to throw while moving away
from rushers.

Beating the Replacement

Miami’s Cortland Finnegan was a no-go at cornerback against New York and is
listed as questionable for this week. If he’s again unable to play, or less
than 100 percent, it tilts a matchup in the favor of Ravens veteran Steve
Smith. R.J. Stanford started in Finnegan’s place Monday, but he’ll be much
more challenged by Flacco and Smith than he was by the Jets’ tandem of Geno
Smith and Eric Decker.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Though the Dolphins have won five of their last eight games – and only dropped
the other three by a combined 10 points – a noticeable theme across 12 games
is that they’ve feasted on lesser foes, and struggled with better ones. The
five losses have all come against teams with at least seven wins, while the
seven wins include Jacksonville, Oakland and the Jets. Baltimore is good, and
matches up well.

“We have a huge game down in Miami,” Harbaugh said. “There will a lot on the
line and they’ll be ready and they’re good. We’ll have a great opportunity to
make a move. It’s going to be very competitive (and) down to the wire to make
the playoffs, to win the division, and we are in the thick of it.”

Sports Network predicted outcome: Ravens 28, Dolphins 27