The Baltimore Ravens will be back at home for the final two games of the regular season and in Week 17, they’ll be taking on the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The Ravens are slight favorites to come out on top in this matchup between two AFC division leaders. This game has massive playoff implications as both teams are vying for the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
However, games aren’t won on paper or decided by betting odds. There are some pivotal matchups between individual players, units, and coaches that will go a long way in determining the outcome of this contest.
Below are a handful of those key battles that could prove to be deciding factors in Week 17.
Ravens secondary v. WR Tyreek Hill
The last time the Dolphins came to town, the Ravens allowed a pair of speedy wideouts to eclipse 170 receiving yards and reach the end zone twice. Since third-year pro Jaylen Waddle will likely miss this game due to a high ankle sprain he suffered last week, the top priority for the Ravens in the backend will be preventing Hill from getting behind them or turning short completions into big plays. The seven-time Pro Bowler erupted for a team-leading and game-high 190 yards on 11 receptions, including a 60-yard bomb that was the result of a blown coverage and led to the game-tying score with just under five minutes left in the fourth quarter.
The Ravens’ defensive backfield they have this season is far superior to the one that got torched that day. The young players responsible for those mistakes have grown tremendously through their gained experience, none more than second-year breakout star Kyle Hamilton. They are now arguably the most diverse and disciplined secondary in the league with a pair of stellar cornerbacks in Marlon Humphrey and Brandon Stephens, as well as the best safety trio in the league with Hamilton, seventh-year veteran Marcus Williams, who had a pair of interceptions in their last meeting, and fourth-year pro Geno Stone, who currently leads the team with a career-high six interceptions.
While the Ravens will rarely, if ever, leave Hill in single coverage in this game—especially if Waddle is out—Humphrey might be the key to slowing down Hill if he plays and is deployed in a similar fashion that he was used against the San Francisco 49ers on Christmas. Given the similar nature of the two offenses being from the Shanahan schematic blueprint and the amazing results that it yielded, playing the three-time Pro Bowler more at nickel where has been a playmaker may be the best move, especially if Hamilton is limited or unavailable with his lingering knee injury.
Marlon Humphrey had only played 2 snaps at slot cornerback this season before playing 21 there vs. the 49ers, per @NextGenStats.— Ryan Mink (@ryanmink) December 27, 2023
With his physicality and instincts, good things happen when Marlon is near the ball. pic.twitter.com/NTfssK5aca
Mike Macdonald v. Mike McDaniel
The Ravens’ second-year defensive coordinator is one of the fastest-rising young stars in the coaching ranks. He appears destined to ascend to being a head coach somewhere this offseason due in large part to how he has game planned and how his unit has performed against some of the top offenses in the league. Macdonald has matched wits against some of the brightest and most innovative offensive minds this year and has bested the likes of Ben Johnson, who is projected to be the top head coaching candidate this upcoming cycle, Kellen Moore, Doug Pederson, and most recently Kyle Shanahan. He went up against Sean McVay in Week 14 as well but his unit gave up 29 points and their first game of 400-plus yards of total offense.
McDaniel is the latest and is just as creative and sharp as the rest including his two friends and mentors in Shanahan and McVay. The Ravens weren’t fooled by hardly any of the 49ers’ pre-snap motions or other forms of schematic wrinkles that put defenders in disadvantageous situations in space or behind the line of scrimmage. However, while Miami’s offense shares similar roots it’s still a different beast that presents its own set of challenges.
"If you're not learning on a week to week basis... Then you're doing your team a disservice. That's something we take a lot of pride in." DC Mike Macdonald on making week-to-week adjustments pic.twitter.com/7yzo8v2eHV— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) December 28, 2023
“It’s unique to the rest of the league because it’s at every spot,” Macdonald said. “Every guy that can touch the ball can take off and score from any point...You have to take great angles, [and] you have to have great force, great secondary force and a third guy in the alley.
“The ball can hit at any point in the field, anywhere from the A-gap all the way out to the alley. So, it’s a challenge. How we structure things, and how we play blocks, and they do some things, schematically, that are a little different from what we’ve seen in the run game and the perimeter, like screen game. So, we’re getting a great look this week. The guys have practiced well today and the walkthrough yesterday, but [we] definitely need to attack that the rest of the week.”
Ravens wide receivers v. Dolphins cornerbacks
The last time these teams played, Miami wasn’t the only offense that had a pair of pass catchers who eclipsed the century mark and found the end zone. Three-time Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews and 2021 first-round wideout Rashod Bateman each recorded over 100 receiving yards and hauled in a touchdown. Although Andrews remains out indefinitely, the Ravens’ revamped receiver depth chart has performed well this season and will face a tough task against the Dolphins cornerbacks.
HOLY BATMAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) September 18, 2022
Tune in on CBS!! pic.twitter.com/iGgfmfFu7w
Miami’s top three corners include six-time Pro Bowler Jalen Ramsey, four-time Pro Bowler Xavien Howard, and stud second-year nickel Kader Kohou. The health status of Ravens electric first-round rookie receiver Zay Flowers is a situation to monitor heading into this game, he has yet to practice this week with a calf injury. Thankfully, they still have three-time Pro Bowl veteran Odell Beckham Jr., Super Bowl-winning veteran Nelson Agholor, and Bateman who has been coming on strong lately. Given his size, athleticism, and experience locking down big-bodied pass catchers, Ramsey might be used at times as a matchup piece with second-year tight end Isaiah Likely, who has performed exceptionally well in Andrews’ absence.
Ravens pass rush v. Dolphins offensive line
Even though the margin isn’t as wide as it once was earlier this season, Baltimore still leads the league in sacks with 54 through 15 games and is going up against a banged-up Miami blocking unit that has all five starters listed on the injury report. The Dolphins have been without starting right guard Robert Hunt for their past three games and didn’t have starting right tackle Austin Jackson last week either. Both players were limited participants on Thursday, as were four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead, left guard Lester Cotton, and center Liam Eichenberg.
The Ravens have defenders that contribute to their pass rush from all three levels and have 15 different players with at least one sack and seven with three or more. Leading the charge up the middle is fourth-year breakout star Justin Madubuike who wasn’t able to break the NFL record for most consecutive games with at least half a sack last week but still leads the team and all interior defensive linemen in the league with a career-high 12.
They have a pair of 10th-year veterans in outside linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jadeveon Clowney, who have pleasantly surprised this year with the way they consistently dominate on the edge. The two of them have ranked second and third on the team in sacks with Clowney closing in on a new career high at 8.5 and Van Noy having already set a new career high with seven in just 12 games. Taking advantage of an ailing blocking unit could help the defense as a whole disrupt and throw off the timing of a Dolphins offense that relies heavily upon getting into and establishing a rhythm, particularly in the passing game.
Eric DeCosta’s patience in the edge market was risky.— Cole Jackson (@ColeJacksonFB) December 28, 2023
But for 3.8M in cap hits, he bought:
109 pressures (16 sacks, 12 QBH and 81 hurries).
Master class of playing the market to sign Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy who have fit Mike MacDonald’s scheme like a glove. pic.twitter.com/1Ax5boBFop
Ravens offensive line v. Dolphins pass rush
On the opposite side of the trenches, Miami ranks second in the league in sacks with 52 and has recorded nearly half of that total (23) in the last six games following their bye week. While they’ve had the benefit of feasting on lesser opponents with poor offensive lines and inexperienced quarterbacks, their talent up front is undeniable.
The Dolphins have 14 different players with at least half a sack, six with 5.5 or more, and are led by two-time Pro Bowler Bradley Chubb, who is just one away from tying his career high of 12 he set as a rookie, and his six forced fumbles are the most in the league. The dynamic interior defensive line duo of Zach Sieler and Christian Wilkins both have at least eight or more sacks and could very well reach double figures over the next two weeks.
While the Ravens only have one starting offensive lineman and one of their top rotational blockers listed on the injury report as limited, the starting blocking unit is far from being at full strength. The Ravens rotated their offensive tackles for the second week in a row so if Patrick Mekari doesn’t clear concussion protocol in time, it might be all on All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley to protect his quarterback’s blind side for the bulk of the game. Veteran right tackle Morgan Moses will likely continue to rotate in with second-year pro Daniel Faalele and veteran right guard Kevin Zeitler almost assuredly won’t miss this huge matchup as long as he is healthy enough to play.