The Baltimore Ravens will face the Miami Dolphins on "Thursday Night Football" after squeaking out yet another nail-biter. Their 34-31 victory over the Vikings in overtime on Sunday was their fifth in eight games this season decided by a touchdown or less.
The Ravens are 4-1 in those games, catapulting them to a 6-2 record and the AFC North lead. They're just a half-game behind the Tennessee Titans for the top seed in the conference, exceeding expectations after landing an NFL-leading 16 players on injured reserve by mid-September.
The Dolphins, meanwhile have seen their playoff hopes crater, suffering through injuries and poor play from starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. His status remains uncertain for Thursday night's game after missing last Sunday with a fractured middle finger on his throwing hand.
Backup Jacoby Brissett rallied the troops enough, snapping the team's seven-game losing streak with a 17-9 victory over the Houston Texans. But the Dolphins, now 2-7, still slogged through a sloppy performance that included five turnovers and zero points scoring in the second half.
Can whoever starts at quarterback find a way to score points against the Ravens? On paper, you'd think the answer is no, but win-loss records haven't mattered much for Baltimore this season. Earlier this year, they needed an NFL-record 66-yard field goal to beat the winless Detroit Lions. Will they be up to the challenge of a 7.5-point spread, capable of winning big against an inferior opponent?
Thursday Night Football: Baltimore (6-2) at Miami (2-7)
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 11 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network
Spread: Ravens -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Who will be the starting quarterback for the Dolphins? Will it matter?
A "Thursday Night Football" placement means an atypical schedule for both teams; as a result, the Dolphins didn't go through a full Tuesday practice. If they did? The team claims Tagovailoa's participation would have been limited.
"[Tua's] making some progress," is how Dolphins head coach Brian Flores described it. "We're just going to take it day-to-day and see how he is today, tomorrow, and probably take it right up to the day of the game."
Of course, when he is in the game, Tagovailoa hasn't done much better than Brissett. Neither one has lit a spark under center, combining for just 12 touchdown passes in nine games. They've thrown nine interceptions and have been sacked 23 times, a total that ranks sixth within the AFC.
It all adds up to just 17.2 points per game for the Dolphins' anemic offense, ranked 28th in the NFL. But whoever is under center has an opportunity that might surprise you. The Ravens, who built Super Bowl-winning teams around their defense, rank 23rd in the NFL in total yards allowed per game and just 31st against the pass. It's a soft spot not often seen by this group; the last time the Ravens ranked outside the top 10 in passing defense was 2014.
Tagovailoa, should he play, has had success with weaker passing defenses, throwing six of his seven touchdown passes against Jacksonville (26th) and Atlanta (13th). The question is whether he's healthy enough to even attempt to take full advantage.
2. Can Lamar Jackson be a better game manager?
Let's not go too far overboard here; Jackson's still playing at a high level, showcasing his comeback skills in the process. He was 0-6 before this season in games the Ravens trailed by 10 points or more. This year? He's 3-0 in wins against the Vikings, Colts, and Chiefs.
That said, Jackson needs to take better care of the ball. He's already thrown seven interceptions, on pace for a career high, and taken 24 sacks (one more already than his MVP season back in 2019).
Injuries have depleted the run game, putting the weight of the offense on his shoulders. Jackson's 600 rushing yards are nearly as much as every other running back on the team combined.
But for the Ravens to win the Super Bowl, especially with a below-average defense, Jackson can't do it alone. That's why continuing to develop receivers like Marquise Brown (nine catches, 116 yards last week against the Vikings) is incredibly important. Rookie Rashod Bateman continues to do well in place of the injured Sammy Watkins, racking up 161 receiving yards the last three games.
Diversifying the receiving corps may be exactly what the doctor ordered against a weak Dolphins defense, ranked 30th overall and 30th against the pass. Just don't sleep on their ability to cause turnovers; their 13 takeaways, including four against Houston, are tied for 11th in the NFL. There's enough talent on that side of the ball to give Baltimore problems, and Jackson needs to make sure he doesn't do too much.
3. Will anyone stop Justin Tucker's kicking foot?
One 49-yard field goal. That's the only miss Tucker's had in a season defined by kickers blowing easy field goals and missing extra points that have decided games.
Tucker's already well on his way to a Hall of Fame career. But 2021 has been extra special, his ability to close games clearly buoying the Ravens' confidence. His most recent game-winner (36 yards) was his 53rd straight make in the fourth quarter or overtime.
"I kind of just felt the energy," Tucker said of the end of the Vikings game. "Like, OK, well, I'm ready to knock down a 52-, 53-, 54-yarder."
The team knows he can do that, and it's more than enough, also changing the strategy of his opponents. It's like having a Tom Brady that scores an automatic three points; if you're the defense, can you ever give the ball back to someone that can hit a field goal at midfield? And they have Jackson as quarterback? It's a great asset few, if any, other NFL teams currently have.
These games are the type the Ravens need to win considering the quality of the AFC North (all four teams are currently above .500). The Dolphins are one of only two teams with a losing record (Chicago) left on their season schedule.
Expect Jackson to rally the troops, come out swinging and take care of business against a Dolphins team struggling to live up to preseason expectations.
Prediction: Ravens 31, Dolphins 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.