With the red-hot Ravens having the opportunity to clinch the No. 1 seed and the AFC North division crown for the first time since 2019 when hosting Miami on Sunday afternoon, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:
1. With the top seed and home-field advantage at stake against the AFC’s No. 2 team, is this the most significant regular-season home game in franchise history? Excluding rivalry games that are often more sizzle than substance, it’s at least on a short list, especially considering Lamar Jackson’s MVP candidacy.
2. The availability of Kyle Hamilton wasn’t trending in the right direction by week’s end with the star safety seemingly doing very little Thursday and not practicing at all Friday. Mike Macdonald can turn to Marlon Humphrey or Arthur Maulet in the slot, but the numbers support how dynamic Hamilton is.
3. Sliding Humphrey to the nickel also has its costs, especially with Brandon Stephens questionable after missing the week’s final two practices with an ankle injury. Few would have bet on the third-year defensive back leading Baltimore in defensive snaps to this point, but Stephens has been so dependable at cornerback.
4. Such secondary concerns are eased by the absence of Jaylen Waddle, whom the Dolphins already ruled out. Tyreek Hill alone is enough of a nightmare to handle, but defenses needing to contain both explains why Miami ranks first in passing yards per game and second in yards per pass attempt.
5. In addition to Miami’s speed at receiver and running back, Tua Tagovailoa has the quickest time to throw in the NFL, making it critical for the inside pass rush to shine. Macdonald noted that it’s easier said than done to “lie to the quarterback” pre-snap on those fast progression reads.
6. Macdonald said the Ravens “haven’t talked about last year” when asked about that Week 2 debacle in which Baltimore blew a 21-point fourth-quarter lead. So many variables have changed in the 31 games since, but finishing has been a major point of emphasis all season — with much improved results.
7. A week after being slowed by a foot injury during the practice week, Zay Flowers sat out with a calf issue before limited work Friday. Whether it’s for a rookie or veterans with nagging injuries, that bye week is so valuable to be able to rest and recalibrate.
8. The Miami defense ranks as elite statistically since Jalen Ramsey returned in Week 9, which is why it was notable seeing the six-time Pro Bowl cornerback surface on Friday’s injury report with a knee issue. The Dolphins could welcome back safety Jevon Holland, who is also dynamic in the secondary.
9. After holding up well against San Francisco’s front, Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses have no time to exhale with the challenge of slowing Miami edge rushers Bradley Chubb and Andrew Van Ginkel, who have combined for 17 sacks. Old friend Vic Fangio has no shortage of defensive talent.
10. Of course, pocket disruption is fazing Jackson less than ever with the superstar quarterback averaging a league-best 8.4 yards per pass attempt against pressure, according to Sharp Football. Jackson is playing so well right now that he’s still thriving even when the defense is executing at a high level.
11. John Harbaugh said Zach Sieler is “exactly the player that I thought he was going to be” when drafted out of Ferris State in 2018. Ozzie Newsome and Baltimore identified the upside, but credit Miami for helping Sieler blossom into an interior rusher with 8 1/2 sacks this season.
12. I wouldn’t want the combination of black jerseys and purple pants to become the primary home uniform, but that is my favorite look among their alternate possibilities. For what it’s worth, the Ravens are also 3-0 when wearing that combination, which first debuted in the 2018 regular-season finale.
Prediction: The stakes alone make this matchup very exciting, but Mike McDaniel comes from the Mike Shanahan coaching tree and runs an offense with characteristics similar to San Francisco, meaning he had the luxury — or curse — of seeing what the Ravens did to wreak havoc on Brock Purdy and the 49ers on Christmas. That said, the Hamilton injury could really alter the way Macdonald’s defense wants to play against a balanced and explosive offense. With Waddle out Sunday, you wonder if the Dolphins will try to lean harder into their potent running game that includes 1,000-yard veteran back Raheem Mostert and rookie home-run hitter De’Von Achane. It’s not a secret that the run defense is the relative soft spot for Baltimore, but the scoreboard has so often dictated opponents abandoning the rush against the NFL’s best team. Playing another massive game on a short week after such an electric win over the 49ers has to be a concern for the team’s brass when coupled with the current health of the secondary, but the Ravens have done an outstanding job being ready to play every week and the Dolphins are also banged up on both sides of the ball. This game is everything in terms of both playoff seeding and perception for Miami, who owns just one win all season against teams currently holding winning records. That won’t change Sunday as Jackson and Baltimore stay a step or two ahead most of the afternoon for a 27-20 win to clinch the AFC’s top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history.