SERIES HISTORY: 13th regular-season meeting. Series tied, 6-6. The Ravens won the last meeting, 38-6, last season. QB Joe Flacco threw for 381 yards and four touchdowns as the Ravens ended the Dolphins’ six-game winning streak. These teams are very familiar as this is the fifth consecutive year they’ve met. The Ravens have won three of the last four meetings.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Miami’s running game will be the focus. Running back Jay Ajayi and the offensive line must take pressure off quarterback Matt Moore, starting his first game because Jay Cutler is out with fractured ribs. It would help Miami establish the physical presence against the NFL’s worst run defense (145.3 yards per game).
The Ravens need to jump out to an early lead because they are not built to play from behind. Flacco might be limited with throwing downfield because of injuries to several of his receivers. So, Flacco might be reduced to picking up yards with screens and intermediate passes. He cannot afford a turnover. The Ravens need to establish the run to take some pressure off Flacco. The Dolphins, however, are stout up front and will try to force Flacco to beat them. The key to this game could be field position.
Miami, which is 10th (308.2 yards per game) in total defense, is becoming adept at shutting down the run and allowing its pass rush, led by DE Cam Wake (6.0 sacks), to take over. Look for Miami to start with an eight-man front early to stop the run.
If Baltimore has success on the ground, the Dolphins will have a long night.
The Ravens are at their best when they force turnovers. Baltimore has managed just four turnovers in their four losses and 11 in their wins. The Ravens will look to keep Moore under pressure. The key will be shutting down Ajayi, but Baltimore’s run defense has allowed more than 100 yards in the past five games.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Ravens LT Ronnie Stanley vs. Dolphins DE Cameron Wake. Stanley is the anchor of an offensive line that has been ravaged by injuries. Quarterback Joe Flacco, who missed all of training camp with an ailing back, has been sacked 17 times. Wake has been a force for Miami and is tied for 10th in the NFL with six sacks. Miami will look to keep Flacco under constant pressure to force mistakes, with Wake leading the charge.
–Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi vs. Ravens DT Brandon Williams. Williams was back in the lineup Sunday against the Vikings after missing four games with a foot injury. Baltimore allowed 169.5 yards per game and went 1-3 when Williams was out. Even with Williams able to play, the Vikings ran for 169 yards on 33 carries. Williams and the rest of the offensive line could face a bigger challenge against Ajayi, who is averaging 73.7 yards per game. Ajayi was held out of practice this week with knee and elbow issues. Miami will look to establish an effective running game, especially with short week and going on the road.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Dolphins QB Matt Moore. Moore will be making his first start of the season in a Thursday night road game, so the degree of difficulty gets raised slightly. Moore did a good job last week in relief of Jay Cutler (ribs). The big concern is whether he’ll be loose with the ball. He was good last season (9 TDs, 4 INTs, including playoffs) and wasn’t bad last week (2 TDs, 1 INT). Otherwise, Moore’s let-it-rip attitude might be just what this offense needed.
FAST FACTS: Dolphins QB Matt Moore came off the bench when Jay Cutler was injured last week and threw two TD passes, finished with a 102.9 rating. In his past six starts on the road, Moore collected 15 passing TDs vs. 3 INTs. … RB Jay Ajay totaled 207 yards from scrimmage (103.5 per game) in the past two games. … WR Jarvis Landry caught passes for 93 yards and a TD last week and seeks fourth straight week with a TD catch. … DE Cameron Wake made 2.5 sacks last week and has at least two in 16 games since entering the league in 2009, tied for fourth among active players. … S Reshad Jones has caught an interception in two of the last three meetings. … Ravens QB Joe Flacco has completed 117 of 162 (72.2 percent) for 1,417 yards, nine TDs and three INTs in the past five meetings. He completed 36 of 47 (76.6 percent) for 381 yards, four TDs and one INT in his last game vs. Miami. … WR Mike Wallace had 15 TD catches in two seasons with Miami (2013-14). … TE Benjamin Watson has 463 career catches, sixth most among active TEs. … LB C.J. Mosley has 46 tackles (11.5 per game) in his past four at home. He is one of three NFL players with 400 tackles (401), five sacks (7) and five INTs (7) since entering the league in 2014. … S Eric Weddle has an interception in two of the past three games at home. … LB Terrell Suggs has 8.5 sacks and a pick-six in the past seven meetings.
PREDICTION: The Dolphins are changing quarterbacks due to injury (again) and Ravens QB Joe Flacco is running out of targets. If Miami can run the clock and gain yards with Jay Ajayi running and receiving it might make Flacco’s lack of familiar targets moot. But the call here is for the Ravens to get a needed victory at home.
Los Angeles Rams (4-9) at Seattle Seahawks (8-4-1)
KICKOFF: Thursday, 8:25 p.m. ET, CenturyLink Field, Seattle. TV: NBC, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Heather Cox.
SERIES HISTORY: 37th regular-season meeting. Seahawks lead series, 21-15. The Seahawks lost the last three meetings and four of the last five. Los Angeles beat Seattle 9-3 in Week 2.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Rams fired coach Jeff Fisher on Monday, and they will be led in the final three games by special teams coach John Fassel, who played a key role in the team’s wins over the Seahawks the last few years.
Fassel would be well served to follow the same blue print the Rams used to beat the Seahawks in Week 2 — controlling the ball and field position, playing punishing defense to harass Seahawks QB Russell Wilson and putting themselves in position to prevail in a close game. To do so, they will have to crack a season-long issue of failing to get Todd Gurley rolling in the running game. If they can run effectively, it would give rookie QB Jared Goff a chance against a stout Seahawks defense with the play-action pass. If not, it will be a long day for Goff and the Rams.
Seattle, coming off a 38-10 defeat at Green Bay, its worst loss since Pete Carroll’s first season (2010), will look to establish resurgent Thomas Rawls against a Los Angeles defense that ranks just 30th against the run. Finding success on the ground also would slow down the Rams’ pass rushers (Robert Quinn is expected to return from a concussion that cost him the past two games).
The Seahawks’ defense will attack Goff in hopes of forcing the rookie into mistakes. Keeping Gurley bottled up would put significant strain on an already anemic offense and help the Seahawks secure the NFC West title.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Rams DT Aaron Donald vs. Seahawks RG Germain Ifedi. Donald gave Seattle fits throughout the past few seasons. Ifedi will be facing him for the first time after missing the Week 2 game due to a high ankle sprain.
–Rams WR Kenny Britt vs. Seahawks CB DeShawn Shead. Britt is one of few weapons in the passing game for QB Jared Goff. He often will be lined up across from Shead, whom he beat a few times in their first meeting in September.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Seahawks RB Thomas Rawls. Rawls recharged Seattle’s rushing attack since returning from a hairline fracture of his fibula four weeks ago. The injury — sustained in the first meeting between Seattle and Los Angeles this season — forced Rawls to miss seven games. He ran for for 268 yards in the four games since returning.
FAST FACTS: Rams RB Todd Gurley rushed for 83 yards and a touchdown in the Rams’ win in Seattle last season, but he gained just 51 on 19 carries (2.7 average) in the Week 2 meeting. Gurley is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry, 38th in the NFL. … Rams WR Kenny Britt has a TD catch in two of his past three games. In his past two games vs. Seattle, he has nine receptions for 143 yards and a TD. … Rams DT Aaron Donald has two sacks and a forced fumble in his past three games. He has four sacks and a forced fumble in five games vs. Seattle. Since 2014, he leads NFL defensive tackles with 27 sacks. … Seahawks QB Russell Wilson has 23 TD passes and just four interceptions in his past 14 home games. In his past three home games vs. NFC West teams, he threw six TD passes and just one INT. … Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin caught eight passes for 118 yards and a score in the last home meeting. Since 2015, he ranks second in the NFC with 19 receiving TDs.
PREDICTION: A rookie quarterback and team in turmoil are just what the doctor ordered for a Seattle team seeking to rebound from a blowout loss and simultaneously clinch the division title. Of course, the Rams never make it easy for the Seahawks.
SEATTLE – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by Sports XChange) – The Week 15 NFL schedule kicks off Thursday in Seattle where the 8-4-1 Seahawks host the NFC West rival Los Angeles Rams. Both teams are coming off devastating Week 14 losses. The Seahawks lost to a hot Green Bay Packers squad 38-10, while the Rams got booed out of the Los Angeles Coliseum in their 42-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
That loss was the final straw for Rams head coach Jeff Fisher. He was fired on Monday.
“This is the right time to make a change as our performance has not lived up to my or our fans’ expectations,” Rams owner Stan Kroenke said in a team issued statement about Fisher’s removal as head coach. “We all are focused on improving as an organization and building a team that makes Los Angeles proud. Our mission is to celebrate a Super Bowl title with our fans in Los Angeles. Today is the first step to bringing us closer to that goal.”
The Rams (4-9) have lost four straight games and the offense has looked like “a middle-school offense” in the words of Rams running back Todd Gurley. The second-year runner out of Georgia has regressed this season. Gurley, who had five 100-yard rushing games in 2015, has yet to break that threshold in 2016. Gurley is averaging only 3.3 yards a rush and has scored five rushing touchdowns.
John Fassel, the Rams special teams coordinator, has been tabbed to close out the last three games as head coach. His first game at the helm comes on a short week and on the road. Fassel will be tasked with trying to keep a team together that seems to not be playing with any passion or fire.
When asked if he thinks everyone was showing up to play, Gurley answered, “I don’t. I really don’t. We’re just going through the motions. It looks like everybody’s just playing to get through. Man, we gotta play. I don’t care if we’re out of the playoffs or not. I don’t care. Just come up, show up, play. That’s why we play this game. Show up, play?”
Seattle head coach Pete Carroll needs his quarterback, Russell Wilson, to show up and play better than he did against the Packers. Wilson was intercepted five times and had numerous other poor throws that contributed to the blowout loss. The Seahawks are the only team in the NFC West with a winning record and should win the division with ease. But Wilson needs to play better down the stretch if Seattle wants to make a deep run in the playoffs.
“When we turn the ball over like that, nothing feels right and you don’t have a chance to get anything accomplished,” Carroll said. “I know you want to know reasons. I don’t know. We’ve been together for five years now and we haven’t seen anything like that so it’s a pretty unusual occurrence.”
As the running game of the Rams continues to struggle, the ground attack for the Seahawks is picking up steam at just the right time. Running back Thomas Rawls, who is finally healthy, helped carry the rushing attack the past two games. Seattle had 136 yards rushing against the Packers. The Seahawks have rushed for over 120 yards and averaged over five yards a carry in the past four games.
Rawls has 173 yards rushing the last two weeks. He will be looking to add to that total Thursday against the Rams. Los Angeles gives up 110.3 yards per game and 4.2 yards per rush. The Rams also have given up big runs, allowing 11 over 20-plus yards this season. Only San Francisco and Miami have allowed more.
“It’s been a month of a big turn from what it was. Thomas really ran hard again the other night. We feel like we can really find the balance that we like,” said Carroll of his running back’s return.
The improvement on the ground goes hand in hand with Rawls’ return to the lineup after missing seven games with a hairline fracture on his fibula. Seattle had gone six straight games without gaining 100 rushing yards before Rawls returned to the lineup.
Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner leads the NFL in tackles with 139 and Seattle’s defense is third in the NFL in points allowed with 17.8 per contest. Seattle will be facing a Rams’ offense that is the worst in the NFL and only averages 14.9 points a game. The Rams have only scored 194 points the entire season.
Seattle has produced 16 turnovers on defense in 2016 while the Rams’ offense has giving the football up 24 times. The Rams will need to cut down on turnovers for a chance to beat the Seahawks on a short week and on the road.
Kansas City 21, Oakland 13
When: 8:25 PM ET, Thursday, December 8, 2016
Where: Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri
KANSAS CITY – (Wire Service Report by Sports XChange for Digital Sports Desk) – Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith has been playing football for a couple decades now between high school, college and the NFL. Never had Smith ever heard the sounds coming out of the Arrowhead Stadium stands on Thursday night.
The Chiefs beat the Oakland Raiders 21-13 in a victory that left the long-time rivals tied for first place in the AFC West with matching 10-3 records. One of the key plays for Kansas City came in the second quarter, when the Raiders punted the ball to K.C.’s rookie sensation Tyreek Hill. The punt hung high and by the time Hill got his hands on the ball, he was driven backward and lost four yards on the return. However, a penalty flag was thrown on Oakland’s Taiwan Jones for going out of bounds on coverage. It’s a 5-yard penalty and the Chiefs forced the Raiders fine punter, Marquette King, to kick again.
That’s when the chant started from the 75,000-plus sitting in Arrowhead: “Tyreek, Tyreek, Tyreek.” The sound rolled across the stadium, bouncing off the building’s upper deck. On the second punt, King drove the ball to the Kansas City 22-yard line — a 54-yard kick. Hill grabbed the ball, tucked it under his arm and proceeded to run through the Oakland coverage team for a 78-yard touchdown, and a 21-3 first-half lead for the Chiefs.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen what happened tonight,” said Smith. “I’ve never seen a stadium chanting a guy’s name like that and then he houses it (touchdown return). It gave me chills on the sideline. The whole stadium is chanting his name and then he answers. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve seen, for sure.”
It was just part of a typical Chiefs-Raiders game they’ve been playing for 57 years now. The Chiefs jumped to that 18-point lead on Hill’s return score, and never changed the scoreboard after that. Oakland’s offense struggled all night, and was able to get only one touchdown and a couple field goals.
“Everything about tonight was unusual, and frustrating,” said Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, who saw his team’s six-game winning streak halted by the poor offensive performance. “Obviously we played awful and it wasn’t good enough.”
Although they won the game, the Chiefs suffered a big loss as the defense’s leading tackler, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, left the field with a ruptured left Achilles. The season is over for the 34-year old Johnson, who missed 15 games in the 2014 season with a torn right Achilles.
“It’s a sad deal,” said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid on losing Johnson. “We had a letdown after it happened. But Justin (Houston) and Eric (Berry) got them going again. That would have been the last thing D.J. wanted, would be a letdown.”
The Chiefs controlled the game in the first half thanks to Hill, with his punt return score and a 36-yard touchdown pass from Smith. Running back Charcandrick West also contributed a 3-yard scoring run.
KANSAS CITY – (Wire Service Report by Sports XChange for Digital Sports Desk) – When the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs got together for their twice yearly meetings over the last 57 years, there’s always been a certain edge to the competition. Generally what has been on the line is pride, reputation and honor. Every once in a while the payoff is even larger. The latter is the case Thursday night when the Raiders visit Arrowhead Stadium to play the Chiefs. Kickoff is set for 7:35 p.m. in what is predicted to be a frigid evening, with temperatures in the high-teens and a wind-chill factor that will make it feel like 10 degrees.
“Honestly I love the cold,” said Oakland quarterback Derek Carr. “I played in the Mountain West Conference and you play in a lot of different places whether it’s Wyoming or Reno or Air Force or Colorado State, obviously cold places. I’ve had my fair share of those games; you treat it like any other game whenever you talk about weather. If you let it affect you, it will, so you just go out there with the right mindset.”
The weather conditions just may help the 9-3 Chiefs cool off the hot 10-2 Raiders. The battle is for control of the AFC West, where Oakland is the leader and the Chiefs sit a game behind. But Kansas City won the first game between the teams 26-10 back in October in Oakland. Since that game the Raiders have not lost, racking up six consecutive victories by an average margin of nine points. Carr has become the first player in NFL history to throw five game-winning touchdown passes in the fourth quarter or overtime in a season.
“Both teams know each other,” said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. “They’ve made changes defensively that have made them better on that side of the ball. They’re playing very good all the way around in the different phases. They were a little down on the defensive side early on but they’ve picked up in that area. They’re flying around and making plays.”
Other than a two-point loss to Tampa Bay just over two weeks ago, the Chiefs have continued their winning ways, taking six of the last seven games. With their 11-1 record to close out the 2015 season, Kansas City is 20-4 in their last 24 regular-season and postseason games. Both teams won last Sunday, with the Chiefs beating the Falcons in Atlanta by one point and the Raiders coming from behind for a victory over Buffalo.
The short preparation time is the bane for all players and coaches, especially the Chiefs, who have had two straight road games, including the trip to Denver when they played a full 75 minutes. The Raiders will be sore, tired and cold.
“The number one thing is recovery,” said Carr. “In a week like this, there’s some tough things that come with it, but like Coach Del Rio says, ‘Nobody cares.’ Nobody cares, at the end of the day you have to go play.”
The Raiders have a half-dozen victories this season that came with strong fourth-quarter comebacks. It’s a mentality that’s changed around Oakland with Del Rio in charge.
“We’re learning how to win games at whatever cost it takes,” said Carr. “Whether it’s Khalil (Mack) stripping somebody or Tay (Latavius Murray) running the ball in or Seth (Roberts) catching another game-winner, we’re just learning how to win games. I think that the more experience we have at doing that, the more situations we’re in we’re going to be able to look back and said, ‘We’ve done this before’.”
The first game between these teams was a 16-point victory for the Chiefs. That day the Raiders did not have Murray, who was out with an injury. He should be on the field Thursday evening. That K.C. victory was built on ball control and security.
They’ll need more of the same to slow the Raiders locomotive.
“The positive is you get a few days off afterwards,” said Reid. “Getting ready is a bit of a scramble drill, but you do it and you move on. It’s hardest on the players, especially the later you get in the year.”
MINNEAPOLIS — Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott is being hailed by many as the best running back to enter the league since Adrian Peterson.
In a league where running backs have been devalued, Elliott has made Dallas’ decision to draft the Ohio State back fourth overall this year a wise move. Elliott leads the NFL with 1,199 yards and is second in rushing touchdowns with 11.
Peterson debuted with 1,341 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 2007 after being the seventh pick in the draft out of Oklahoma. He is on the sideline with a knee injury, but his Minnesota Vikings will be the next to try and slow Elliott. Minnesota knows what it’s up against at home on Thursday when the Vikings (6-5) host Dallas (10-1).
“Well, he’s one of the better backs I’ve seen in quite a while,” Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s really an all-purpose guy that catches the ball very well out of the backfield. He’s quick into the hole; looks like he’s got great vision … He’s special.”
Zimmer, the former Cowboys defensive coordinator, had plenty of accolades to shower on Dallas’ offense this week. He was complementary of rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, who is fourth in the league with a 108.6 quarterback rating.
One reason the Cowboys have had success with two rookies playing vital roles is the offensive line.
“They’re really, really good,” Zimmer said. “They’re the best line I’ve seen in a long time in the NFL, physical, athletic, big.”
Many of those same descriptions have been offered about the Vikings’ defense this season. Thursday’s meeting is a matchup of strengths. Dallas is third in the league in scoring, averaging 28.7 points per game, and is fifth in total offense with 407.6 yards per game. Minnesota’s defense has allowed the second-fewest points per game at 17.5 and is third in total defense, giving up 307 yards per game.
“They have great players on defense,” Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, a former Vikings’ offensive coordinator, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
“They get a lot of people around the football. Teams that play hard and hustle and get lots of guys around the ball, good things happen for them. We’ve got to be as good about our ability to get people around the football, protect the ball carriers and ultimately play aggressive football without getting loose with it.”
KICKOFF: Thursday Night Football, 8:25 p.m., ET, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla. TV: NFL Network, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Heather Cox.
SERIES HISTORY: 47th regular-season meeting. Buccaneers lead series, 24-22. The Bucs won each of the past three meetings, including the season opener 31-24 at the Georgia Dome. They won the last meeting in Tampa 23-19 on Dec. 6, 2015.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Last weekend, the Bucs’ defense could not get pressure on Oakland QB Derek Carr, who passed for a club-record 513 yards and four touchdowns as the visiting Raiders won in overtime.
Now Falcons QB Matt Ryan is the guest after recording his 34th come-from-back victory last week when he tossed a game-winning touchdown pass with 31 seconds left against the Green Bay Packers. He is having his best season statistically, completing 193 of 279 passes for 2,636 yards with 19 touchdowns and four interceptions. He has a passer rating of 115.8, which is second in the NFL behind Tom Brady’s 133.9 mark.
Tampa Bay QB Jameis Winston owns three wins over the Falcons. Atlanta wants to get a better pass rush against him. With three sacks against the Packers, the Falcons have 18 sacks through eight games, tied for 11th in the league. They are one sack off their total of 19 from last season, which was last in the league.
Falcons DE Vic Beasley came up with a sack of Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. He is third in the league with 7.5 sacks. Falcons DT Adrian Clayborn had two sacks, which upped his total to 3.5 on the season. Winston has been sacked 16 times.
In the first meeting, a 31-24 Bucs win at Atlanta on Sept. 11, the Falcons didn’t register a sack, but they had six quarterback hits. Winston passed for 281 yards and four touchdowns.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
–Bucs LB Kwon Alexander vs. Falcons FB Patrick DiMarco and guards Andy Levitre and Chris Chester. Alexander had 17 tackles in the last meeting and effectively shut down the Falcons’ rushing attack. That helped make the offense one-dimensional. When Levitre and Chester climb to the second level, they must get their blocks on Alexander. While DiMarco is in the game as the lead blocker, he must win at the point of attack.
–Bucs WR Mike Evans vs. Falcons CB Desmond Trufant. Evans has 44 catches for 595 yards and six touchdowns. The Bucs will force the ball deep to Evans, who wins more than his share of jump balls. Trufant is having another solid season and has four pass breakups.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Bucs RB Antone Smith. Added to the roster only a few weeks ago, Smith may be the primary ball carrier against the Falcons. The seventh-year pro from Florida State has never carried more than 23 times in an NFL season. Jacquizz Rodgers averaged 25 carries a game since taking over as the primary running back, but he may be sidelined due to an ankle injury, so the Bucs are down to their seventh running back this season.
FAST FACTS: Falcons WR Julio Jones is averaging 110.6 yards per game receiving and has seven TDs in nine career meetings with the Bucs. … Atlanta LB Vic Beasley has three forced fumbles on the season. … Bucs WR Russell Shephard is looking to be on the end of a receiving TD for a third consecutive game. … Tampa Bay DT Gerald McCoy has a sack in two of past three games, and he had career high three against the Falcons Nov. 17, 2013. … Bucs LB Kwon Alexander is aiming to register at least 10 tackles for a fourth consecutive meeting with the Falcons. He has two sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception in three games vs. Atlanta. … Since 2013, Tampa Bay LB Lavonte David is the only NFL player with 450-plus tackles (477), 10-plus sacks (12) and five-plus interceptions (eight).
PREDICTION: The Bucs managed to take the visiting Raiders into overtime with the help of 23 Oakland penalties, though they appeared disjointed on offense against a team with a so-so defense. Falcons QB Matt Ryan leads the NFL with 2,636 passing yards, and he should pad that stat Thursday night.