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NFL Preview - Miami (4-3) at Baltimore (5-2)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Miami Dolphins have been the undisputed kings of the road over the first half of this 2010 season, but this Sunday's battle with the rested Baltimore Ravens may turn out to be the team's most difficult task to date.
While Miami brings a glossy 4-0 record as the visitor into M&T Bank Stadium for this key Week 9 clash, the Ravens have won all three of their home games this season and sport an outstanding 15-4 mark in their own building in head coach John Harbaugh's two-plus years at the helm.
Baltimore, which returns from its bye week for Sunday's showdown between AFC contenders, has also been tough when coming off a layoff, and especially so under the current regime. The Ravens are 7-1 in their first game back from the break over the previous eight seasons, and have outscored the opposition by a 58-17 margin in winning their two post-bye tests with Harbaugh in charge.
The Ravens likely needed the extra rest last week provided after being pushed to the limit by a determined Buffalo team in its last outing. Baltimore needed overtime to get past the winless Bills back on Oct. 24, fighting back from an early 14-point deficit to come away with a hard-earned 37-34 victory at M&T Bank Stadium.
Baltimore's vaunted defense was lit up for 514 total yards that day, its most given up since the 2000 season, but the Ravens were still able to prevail by taking advantage of four Buffalo turnovers that accounted for 17 points. The last of the bunch took place within the extra session, with star linebacker Ray Lewis forcing a fumble to set up kicker Billy Cundiff's game-winning 38- yard field goal.
Another of the Ravens' longtime defensive stalwarts had an impactful day as well against the Bills. Safety Ed Reed, playing for the first time since undergoing offseason hip surgery, intercepted two second-half passes to help spark the comeback.
The win improved Baltimore to 5-2 on the season, good for a first-place tie with rival Pittsburgh in the AFC North and one game back of New England for the best record in the conference.
Miami owns an unconventional 4-3 record and is two games behind the Patriots for the AFC East's top spot. And while the Dolphins are yet to obtain a win at home this year, they've already knocked off three other 2009 postseason participants on the road in Minnesota, Green Bay and Cincinnati.
The Dolphins used a strong defensive effort and the accurate leg of kicker Dan Carpenter to produce a 22-14 verdict over the slumping Bengals a week ago. Carpenter went 5-for-5 in field goal tries for a second consecutive game, while Miami held Cincinnati to a mere 78 yards, five first downs and zero points in the second half.
Carpenter also drilled five three-pointers in a controversial 23-22 home loss to Pittsburgh in Week 7, a setback in which the Dolphins had an apparent fumble recovery on the eventual game-winning drive ruled inconclusive following a replay challenge.
Miami is 5-2 against Baltimore in regular-season games all-time, but was a 27-13 home loser when the teams met back in Week 7 of the 2008 season. The Dolphins also came up short in their only lifetime visit to M&T Bank Stadium, with the Ravens posting a 30-23 decision during the 2004 finale, but did best Baltimore at Memorial Stadium during the 1997 campaign.
The most recent encounter between the teams took place in the Wild Card Round of the 2008 AFC Playoffs, with the Ravens delivering a 27-9 victory in Miami. Baltimore intercepted four passes in that contest, with Reed recording two picks of now-Dolphins backup quarterback Chad Pennington. The Ravens also claimed a 20-3 triumph on the road over Miami in a 2001 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Harbaugh is 1-0 against the Dolphins in both the regular season and the postseason, while Miami's Tony Sparano has lost each of his two head-to-head matchups (one regular season, one playoffs) with Harbaugh and the Ravens.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Miami has generally been a run-first operation during Sparano's tenure, but the team has loosened the reins on young quarterback Chad Henne (1669 passing yards, 8 TD, 7 INT) during the past few weeks, albeit to mixed results. The third-year pro has averaged 39 pass attempts and 275 yards through the air over the last five games, but the Dolphins are only 2-3 in that time. Miami's still at its best when the backfield tandem of Ronnie Brown (374 rushing yards, 1 TD, 13 receptions) and Ricky Williams (335 rushing yards, 6 receptions, 2 total TD) is running the football with authority, as it's 4-0 this season when churning out 120 rushing yards or more. The duo was effective in last week's besting of the Bengals, combining for 108 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. Henne has completed a solid 63 percent of his throws and has a good cast of pass-catchers to work with, highlighted by talented offseason pickup Brandon Marshall (47 receptions, 588 yards, 1 TD). Slotman Davone Bess (39 receptions, 3 TD) has developed into a reliable underneath target who's compiled six or more catches in five of Miami's seven tests, while sophomore Brian Hartline (25 receptions, 1 TD) has averaged five grabs and 55 receiving yards over the past two weeks as Marshall's complement out wide.
The Ravens have annually fielded one of the league's top rush defenses in recent times, with the incomparable Lewis (60 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and standout lineman Haloti Ngata (39 tackles, 4 sacks) universally regarded as two of the best at their positions. Baltimore has been somewhat mortal in that department this year, however, ranking 17th versus the run (109.3 ypg) at the moment and allowing an average of 4.2 yards per attempt. The team's play against the pass was actually a problem spot in its latest game, with Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick shredding the Ravens for 382 yards and four scores back in Week 7. Baltimore did get two very big interceptions out of Reed, however, and the six-time All-Pro's playmaking skills are welcomed by a secondary that had only three picks over the first six games. Harbaugh did make an in-game switch in the backfield against the Bills, benching struggling corner Fabian Washington (24 tackles, 8 PD) in favor of Josh Wilson (8 tackles, 4 PD), but it remains to be seen whether that move will become permanent. Ngata and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (32 tackles, 3.5 sacks) have been the only consistent pass rushers for a unit that managed only one sack in the Buffalo game.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Like Miami, Baltimore's preference is to control the clock and wear down the opposition with a persistent ground game featuring hard-nosed running back Ray Rice (523 rushing yards, 2 TD, 24 receptions). The Ravens have actually been more dangerous throwing the ball lately, though, with quarterback Joe Flacco (1651 passing yards, 10 TD, 6 INT) having put up five touchdown passes over the last two games and going without an interception in the past three. The acquisition of ex-Cardinal Anquan Boldin (38 receptions, 518 yards, 5 TD) has been a huge boost to a receiving corps that also sports two steady performers in veteran wideout Derrick Mason (26 receptions, 1 TD) and tight end Todd Heap (24 receptions, 3 TD), and Flacco could have another weapon in his disposal with this week's anticipated return of wide receiver Dont� Stallworth. The speedy 29-year-old has recovered from a fractured foot suffered in the preseason and could lend a big-play element to the offense if he's ready to go. Rice and backfield mate Willis McGahee (207 rushing yards, 4 TD) teamed up for 136 yards and a score on 27 carries against Buffalo's porous defense two weeks back, and look for the pair to again share touches on Sunday.
The Dolphins' goal will be to get Baltimore into obvious passing situations so they can unleash outside linebacker Cameron Wake (23 tackles, 6.5 sacks), a former CFL star who's quickly emerged into a top-tier pass rusher and impact player. He and promising rookie Koa Misi (15 tackles, 3.5 sacks) have formed a formidable combo, and their knack for generating pressure off the edge along the shutdown capabilities of second-year corner Vontae Davis (20 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PD) present two difficult challenges for the Ravens' offense. Miami has also been strong in defending the run lately, having allowed an average of just 80 rushing yards per game over the past three weeks, and the return of previously-injured inside linebacker Channing Crowder (10 tackles) alongside prized free-agent signee Karlos Dansby (50 tackles, 1 sack) has coincided with that uptick in performance. The Dolphins have forced only eight turnovers through the first seven games, with cornerback Jason Allen (32 tackles, 8 PD) having accounted for three of the team's lackluster total of five interceptions.
It's a troubling sign when a team's most attractive fantasy option is its kicker, but Carpenter's been absolute gold for his owners and needs to remain in weekly lineups while he's this hot. Marshall's the only other absolute must-start on the Miami side, with Bess holding good value in points-per- reception leagues, but the Brown/Williams timeshare has curtailed the upside for both players and makes each mediocre choices at running back. Henne is a decent yet not elite fantasy quarterback, but Flacco offers some intrigue at the position based on his recent output. Boldin and Rice are the two safest bets for production among Ravens, and Heap's three touchdowns over the past two games makes the brittle tight end worthy of consideration. Don't discount McGahee either, as he's found the end zone in three straight tilts and seems to be Baltimore's preferred goal-line back. With neither defense having made a lot of big plays this season, there are probably better alternatives to be found.
Miami's outstanding play on the road must be taken into account here, but the team's extended struggles to score touchdowns is an important variable to factor in as well. Baltimore's defense has been one of the best within the red zone, and the Dolphins may not be able to get away with being forced to settle for Carpenter field goals this time around. The bye week and the home crowd should also work to the benefit of the Ravens, who'll put forth a tighter defensive effort than they showed two weeks back and may have a few too many playmakers on offense for Miami to adequately contain.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 24, Dolphins 16
11/04 12:47:03 ET