|Date of game: 11/23/2014
NFL Preview - Miami (6-4) at Denver (7-3) (ET)
(SportsNetwork.com) - It's not every day that you hear an NFL player - particular on the defensive side of the ball - looking anxiously ahead to a matchup with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
But given the confidence jolt provided by four wins in five games, that's where the Miami Dolphins are.
"It's going to be fun," safety Reshad Jones said. "It's a challenge. This what you play the game for, these type of games. I think it's going to be a great atmosphere, great time of the season. It's our time to go out, make our plays and make a statement."
The Dolphins actually began the season at 1-2, but has since reeled off five wins in seven games - the two losses came by a combined seven points against two likely NFC playoff teams - and have put themselves definitively into the postseason conversation in the AFC.
Miami improved to 6-4 with a 24-9 stifling of AFC East rival Buffalo last week and hasn't allowed a touchdown in two of its last three games. The Dolphins are second in the league in pass defense (208 yards per game) heading into the duel with Manning and Co., who are third in the league in total offense (412.9 yards per game) and second among the 32 teams in pass yardage (323 per game).
The 38-year-old has been sacked an NFL-low 11 times in 10 games, but part of the clear Miami mandate this week is to at least rattle him whether he's being tackled with the ball in his hands or not.
"We just have to try to throw him off of his game early, try to get pressure on him and try to hit him as much as we can and force him to make bad throws," said Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon, whose 51/2 sacks are second on the team. "We've just got to get off the ball, time the snap and make sure we get pressure on him all game long. He has a very good line that's protecting him and he's a future Hall of Famer and we've got to throw all types of things at him that he wouldn't expect and mix it up."
Alongside the pressure is the aim of keeping Manning off the field as much as able.
Miami has gained 100 or more yards on the ground in eight of 10 games this season, most recently with 125 yards against the Bills. The team is sixth in the league with an average ground take of 127.3 yards per game, thanks to a deep backfield featuring Lamar Miller (614 yards), Daniel Thomas (138 yards), Damien Williams (100 yards) and quarterback Ryan Tannehill (261 yards).
Tannehill is gaining yardage at an average of 7.1 yards per run, and the Bills game was the fifth time this season - and fourth time in five games - that he completed more than 70 percent of his passes, going 26-of-34 (76.4 percent) for 240 yards and two touchdowns.
Still, though the Dolphins are averaging 24.9 points per game, they're 31st in a 32-team league when it comes to red-zone scoring efficiency. In fact, Miami is averaging just 4.1 points on possessions that reach the opponent's 20-yard line. Denver, incidentally, is first in the league at 6.0 points per possession, with touchdowns on 77 percent of its red-zone drives.
"Why have we had so many red-zone drives?" Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. "Probably because we haven't had explosive plays that have scored from outside the red zone. It's easy math. The thing that's not easy is getting it fixed."
The teams haven't played since Miami won an 18-15 decision over the Tim Tebow- led Broncos in 2011, but Manning's career mark against the Dolphins with Indianapolis was a mediocre 5-7 with a pedestrian 79.8 passer rating thanks to 18 interceptions alongside his 18 touchdowns.
His fortunes these days aren't quite so miserable, but Sunday's game does come amid a rare slump for the team. Denver has lost two of three games after a 22-7 upset at St. Louis last weekend, and a defeat against Miami would mark just the second 1-3 skid in a four-game stretch since No. 18 arrived.
The last two losses - to New England and the Rams - have been by a combined 65-28.
The Broncos' time of possession against the Rams was a season-low 24:10.
"You feel like you've let your team down," Manning said. "I didn't feel like I carried my weight. That's pretty plain and simple."
The struggles have come in a rare stretch of three straight road games. Since arriving in Denver, Manning has 10 more interceptions and 10 fewer touchdowns in road games, and the Broncos have scored nine fewer rushing touchdowns away from home as well. In fact, of Manning's nine regular-season losses with the team, only two have come in Denver.
Injuries to offensive players like Julius Thomas (ankle), Emmanuel Sanders (concussion) and Montee Ball (groin) haven't helped matters, and the run game have been stifled to 43 and 28 yards, respectively, in the last two losses.
But if you're expecting coach John Fox to beg for mercy, don't bother.
"We're not making excuses," he said. "There's no panic inside the building. It's just part of the way the league goes. We're displeased, we're not happy with the results, but we get to atone for it getting ready against the Miami Dolphins."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Hold Him Tight (End)
Presuming he's healthy and ready to go after the ankle injury last week, Denver's Thomas is a nightmare matchup for any defense. Against the Dolphins, curtailing his production will be the responsibility of linebacker Philip Wheeler underneath and safety Reshad Jones over the top. Miami employed that approach against San Diego's Antonio Gates and held him to three catches for 28 yards.
Crack Open a Miller
Miami tackle Dallas Thomas is a 6-foot-5, 306-pound behemoth, but he'll have his giant hands full when lined up against Denver linebacker Von Miller, who's putting together yet another high-quality season. Miller has averaged a sack a game and is athletic and strong enough to stay on the field to defend the run as well. Thomas allowed two sacks to Buffalo's Mario Williams last week, so he'll need help.
If you base your selections on momentum, Miami is an easy call. Though the Dolphins are a game behind in the standings, they've been far better over the last three weeks and are just eight points shy of having won seven consecutive games. Not to mention that they play defense well and can at least hang in with Manning and Co. on offense. Score one for cross-country confidence.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Dolphins 27, Broncos 24