Sunday's meeting between the Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos is by far the most fascinating of the season so far for me.
It's not so much that the game will determine so much.
It's simply that this game features so many matchups that pit very good players against one another. Ryan Clady against Olivier Vernon? Excellent. Will Aqib Talib match up against Mike Wallace? Brent Grimes against Demeryius Thomas?
One matchup that hasn't gotten much attention is Dolphins rookie Jarvin Landry against Denver cornerback Chris Harris Jr. Harris projects to cover Miami's outstanding slot receiver quite a bit on Sunday. And while Landry is perhaps Miami's most dependable short threat, Harris has been outstanding against slot receivers this year, allowing only 11 catches for 57 yards on 19 targets. That's a 40.1 QB rating against Harris. This according to ProFootballFocus.com
As for the Denver defensive front, expect OLB DeMarcus Ware to rush from the right side although the Broncos at times flip their outside linebackers. Ware has rushed from the left side on only 47 of his 315 snaps, per PFF.
That means you'll see Ware vs. Ja'Wuan James most of the afternoon and Von Miller versus Dallas Thomas most of the afternoon -- assuming Thomas stays in the game all afternoon. As you know, his status is tenuous and he has to play well to keep his spot.
Here are the other keys to the game:
When the Broncos pass the football: Peyton Manning is one of the all-time great NFL quarterbacks but not lately. He has thrown two interceptions in three consecutive games, marking the first time he does that since joining the Broncos is 2012. The last time he’d done it was 2010 while in Indianapolis. One reason Manning looks mortal is his protection hasn’t been up to standard. The Broncos yielded two sacks, four quarterback hits and six hurries against St. Louis. That’s not what Manning is used to because he is the least sacked quarterback in the NFL, having suffered only 11 this season. The Broncos have excellent weapons for Manning to use but two of those – receiver Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Julius Thomas – missed the week of practice. Sanders is probable and Thomas is questionable. Former Dolphin Wes Welker hasn’t haunted Miami since departing New England. He’s baaaack. The Dolphins will be looking to affect Manning by, among other things, getting their interior linemen to try to deflect passes at the line of scrimmage. The cornerback situation is a question mark again for the Dolphins with Jamar Taylor again starting for Cortland Finnegan. ADVANTAGE: Denver.
When the Broncos run the football: The Broncos are not a running team. It simply is not their identity. Last week the Broncos ran only nine times (not counting a kneel down to end the first half). They did not run the ball the final 7:49, spanning their final 28 offensive snaps. Constant shifting along the offensive line – with center Manny Ramirez moved to right guard, right guard Louis Vasquez moved to right tackle and reserve Will Montgomery promoted to starting center – hasn’t helped so far. The Broncos have three games in which they’ve rushed for less than 50 yards and two of those came in the last three weeks. It also has hurt the Broncos that running back Montee Ball missed five weeks with a groin injury, returned last week against St. Louis and re-injured the groin. He will not play against Miami. The Dolphins are stopping the run better this year than any time since Joe Philbin took over. Earl Mitchell, Randy Starks and Jared Odrick are playing well and the return of Koa Misi to the middle linebacker spot has helped. ADVANTAGE: Miami.
When the Dolphins pass the football: Before Ryan Tannehill has a chance to throw the football he has to have time to do so. That means right tackle Dallas Thomas has got to improve because last week he yielded 2.5 sacks, a quarterback hit and four hurries. Coaches have told Thomas he must be better this game, and early on, or he may be benched in favor of Jason Fox. That is no small issues because the Broncos attack the quarterback with accomplished pass rushers DeMarcus Ware from one side and Von Miller from the other. The duel threats prevent teams from sliding protection to one side or another with great success. Now, as for Tannehill, although his deep ball accuracy is still a frustrating problem, the Dolphins are calling and Tannehill is embracing shorter and intermediate routes that are resulting in completion of completion. Tannehill has completed over 70 percent of his passes in four of the past five games, including three in a row. It helps that Miami receivers have not dropped a pass the past two weeks. ADVANTAGE: Even.
When the Dolphins run the football: With two big backs – Ben Tate and LaGarrette Blount -- on the market last week after both were cut by their teams, the Dolphins chose to stand pat. That means they intend to ride Lamar Miller as their starter. Miller lately has shown more of an ability to make defenders miss – something coaches have in the past worried he lacked. Reserve rookie Damien Williams has lately shown the game is slowing down for him. He had his best game against the Lions two weeks ago and although he didn’t carry the ball against Buffalo, he had two catches, including one for 32 yards. The Broncos are a very good run defense. They’re No. 2 in the NFL against the run and lead the NFL in fewest runs of 10-plus yards with only 15. QB Ryan Tannehill continues to be a key part of the Miami running game and is actually the team’s most efficient runner, gaining 7.1 yards per carry (best average on team) on 37 carries (second most on team) off the read option. ADVANTAGE: Broncos.
Special teams: Broncos kicker Brandon McManus has missed both his field goal attempts of 50-yards or more this year and that’s the tip of the problems the team has had on special teams. They are 31st in kick return average, 30th in field goal percentage, 25th in kickoff coverage and 24th in punt returns. Oh, and punter Britton Colquitt was sick earlier in the week. The Dolphins continue to struggle with their punting game (30th in net punt average) but Jarvis Landry has been outstanding on kickoffs (second in the NFL in kickoff average) and kicker Caleb Sturgis, inconsistent earlier this season, has connected on six consecutive field goals. ADVANTAGE: Miami.
Coaching: Broncos coach John Fox is just the sixth coach in professional football history to lead multiple teams to the Super Bowl, having done it in Carolina in 2003 before doing it last season with the Broncos. His staff includes former NFL head coach Jack Del Rio. This staff must figure out how to lift the Broncos from their current skid, having lost two of three games, and recapture the type of play that made them a Super Bowl team last year and a contender earlier this year. Joe Philbin and his staff have the Dolphins playing well. The Dolphins have won four of the past five games but have to figure out how to carry that momentum on the road where they’re 3-2 this season. ADVANTAGE: Even.