The Miami Dolphins (5-3) have traveled North to take on the Detroit Lions (6-2) in a battle between teams who have playoff aspirations. The winner of this game between similarly-built teams will be on the fast track to claiming a playoff berth in their conference.
Here are this five things to watch for in this pivotal matchup between teams on an up-swing:
1. Miami's running game
The Dolphins already lost Knowshon Moreno for the year with an ACL tear. Now they may go up against one of the NFL's best defenses without their leading rusher, Lamar Miller. Miller has a shoulder sprain which will limit his effectiveness immensely.
Part of the reason Miller has been having more success this year, outside of his improved ability to find running lanes, is his increase in physicality. The shoulder injury will undoubtedly put a timid attitude back into Miller, who dealt with a similar injury last season. Miller will be getting hit in the shoulder nearly every time he touches the ball, so the injury is extremely untimely against a defense that allows the lowest yards per carry average in the league.
Who will handle the load with Miller hobbled? You can expect to see a heavy dose of Daniel Thomas and Damien Williams. Thomas has been running much better in his second stint with Miami, and Williams brings much-needed physicality.
2. Dominant defensive lines
This game could very well come down to who's defensive front can take control of the game.
The Lions have a dominant defensive line that allows the fewest yards per carry and the fewest total yards per game.
Dallas Thomas is filling in for Daryn Colledge at left guard yet again this Sunday. Thomas has been solid when starting this season, but he usually struggles most with quick, powerful defensive tackles.
This means the Lions could have a real advantage if they line up Ndamukong Suh right over top of Thomas. Suh, who has three and a half sacks this season, could give Thomas the same type of trouble that Tampa Bay Buccaneers DT Gerald McCoy gave him in the preseason.
Fortunately for Miami, Thomas and Suh won't have too many one-on-one battles. Suh will usually line up over Mike Pouncey, who was moved to right guard specifically to deal with this stretch of daunting defensive fronts (Lions this week, Buffalo Bills next week).
The Dolphins defensive line has a chance to really take a strangle hold on Detroit's weak offensive line, unless the Lions expose Miami with...
3. Short passing game
Miami's defensive line creates the type of pressure on quarterbacks that force game-changing plays. The Lions do not possess the offensive line talent necessary to slow down such a forceful pass rush. In order to combat that, the Lions will likely turn to the short passing game.
The Dolphins defense can expect to see slants, quick outs, screens and other short routes to Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate and Reggie Bush that keep the chains moving. Aiding Lions' cause will be the fact that the Dolphins cornerbacks usually play at least six yards off the line of scrimmage.
4. Down-and-distance situations
The Dolphins need to keep themselves in favorable down-and-distance situations versus a defense as dominant as Detroit's. Miami must get steady gains on first and second down to keep third downs short and infrequent. You can expect to see some exotic play-calling from Bill Lazor to get favorable matchups, and also a good amount of Tannehill on the move to neutralize the Lions strong defensive front.
If Miami is forced into long third downs often then this game will get ugly.
5. Turnover battle
The Dolphins have the type of swarming defense that creates turnovers, and they have done just that in the past couple of weeks. Miami's defense has taken the ball away from opposing offenses 10 times during their three-game winning streak. Turnovers have been a huge part of Miami's success.
If Miami wants to keep the win streak going, they will need to nab another takeaway. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has been known to be generous to opposing defenses in the past, and the Dolphins have had a way of forcing interception-prone quarterbacks back into old habits (Chicago Bears QB Jay Cutler, for example).
Conversely, the Dolphins need to keep their offense efficient and turnover free. Miami cannot give the Lions any short fields or easy look at points in what will likely be a claw to the finish.