Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has avoided costly mistakes over his team's six-game winning streak.
Tannehill likely will need to maintain that level of play Sunday against a stout Baltimore Ravens' defense if Miami is to exit with a victory.
Tannehill has made several key adjustments under first-year coach Adam Gase, who has helped his quarterback develop better footwork in the pocket. Tannehill has responded with his best year as a pro. He has thrown for nine touchdowns and one interception with a passer rating of 104.7 over the past six games.
The Ravens, however, pose the biggest challenge so far with the league's second-ranked defense. Still, Tannehill's confidence is riding high and he is poised to make some key plays in this tough road matchup.
“It is exciting to be where we're at right now,” Tannehill said. “Obviously you want to be playing meaningful games in December to get yourself playing in January and February, and we've done that. I'm not surprised because we just kind of stuck to the process. We believed in each other and just kept growing as a football team.”
Tannehill may have to make some more big plays, especially if the Dolphins cannot effectively run the ball. Baltimore has the league's top rushing defense, allowing 74.9 yards per game.
Last week, the San Francisco 49ers stacked the box to shut down Miami's running attack, and Tannehill responded with three touchdown passes. Ravens coach John Harbaugh has been impressed by Tannehill's performance and is preparing for a versatile offense.
“Tannehill has done a great job all year,” Harbaugh said. “Obviously, he has not made a lot of mistakes since they have started winning – more touchdown passes with fewer interceptions. They have run the ball. They have three really good receivers and a great running back. It is a good combination of players.”
The Dolphins have won each of their past five games by seven points or fewer. They could be faced with another closely contested matchup at M&T Bank Stadium.
Baltimore is 32-15 at home during the month of December. Since 2008, the Ravens have allowed just 16.4 points per game at M&T Bank Stadium — the NFL's best defensive mark.
While the Dolphins lead the all-time series 6-5, the Ravens have won four of the past five regular-season meetings. Baltimore has also beaten Miami twice in the postseason in the wild-card round (2002 and 2009).
Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs has been the dominant players with 9.5 sacks in seven games.
Baltimore's defense got a boost with the return of fellow linebacker Elvis Dumervil from a foot injury. Dumervil secured the Ravens' 19-14 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals with a strip-sack on quarterback Andy Dalton with just over a minute to play.
The Ravens' top cornerback Jimmy Smith also returned to practice this week after missing the past two games. This could help Baltimore contain the Dolphins talented pair of receivers Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker.
“I think any time you play a defense that has the players that they have and then the coaching staff that they have – it's a very good coaching staff to where those guys will be in great position,” said Gase, who interviewed for Ravens' offensive coordinator position in 2015. “They'll obviously be dialed in to our scheme.”
The onus could be on Miami running back Jay Ajayi to relieve some of that pressure on the offense. Ajayi is ranked seventh in the NFL with 847 yards on 161 carries. However, he has been held to under 80 yards in the past three games.
The Dolphins got some good news this week as injured offensive lineman Branden Albert (wrist) and Laremy Tunsil (shoulder) were able to return to practice.
“We still have a lot of room to grow,” Ajayi said. “It's comforting because if we can figure those little things out and hone in on those details now at this time and really get rolling, then December is going to be huge for us.”
The Ravens need more production from quarterback Joe Flacco and the rest of the offense. Flacco has thrown for 2,877 yards with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions in 11 games. He is expected to face some pressure this week from Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who has five sacks.
Baltimore is averaging 19.8 points per game — tied with Minnesota for 24th in the league. In In the victory over the Bengals, the Ravens had to rely on four field goals from Justin Tucker — three of those kicks were over 50 yards.
“We need to score more points as an offense,” Harbaugh said. “That's the bottom line. We just have to continue to find a way to do that. I believe we can do it. I know we can do it. Making plays here and there, blocking a little bit better, seeing some reads, calling some plays, building a good game plan, those are all things that you try to do.”
It will also be the first time Ravens receiver Mike Wallace plays against the Dolphins since he left there in 2014 after two tumultuous seasons. Wallace said he has no bad feelings toward Miami, but he would like nothing more than to have a big game against them as a Raven.
“I'm happy for those guys,” Wallace said Wednesday about Miami. “No ill feelings. But I feel like I've been taken on this path for a reason. The way the (Ravens') organization is run is more my speed here.”