The turnover battle traditionally determines the winner in virtually every football game, and this encounter isn’t expected to be any different.
The twist contained within Sunday’s game at Dolphin Stadium, though, is that something probably will give between the Ravens (11-5) and the Dolphins (11-5) as Baltimore leads the NFL with 34 takeaways while the Dolphins are tied with the New York Giants for the fewest turnovers in the league with 13.
Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington has thrown the least interceptions in the league with seven this season as Miami leads the NFL with a plus-17 turnover ratio. And Baltimore leads the league with 26 interceptions and ranks second in the NFL to the Green Bay Packers with six defensive touchdowns.
In creating a scouting report on the Dolphins, defensive coordinator Rex Ryan had to scour the Ravens’ film library to find examples of the Dolphins giving away the football.
"It’s a short video," Ryan said. "They don’t turn it over very often. If you knock the heck out of somebody, the ball has a tendency to come out. If you can do a great job of your gang tackling, you can pull a ball out. And then you hope for a tipped ball or a bad read by a quarterback or a receiver, and that’s generally when you get your interceptions."
It’s a rare feat, though, against the Dolphins. They are just the seventh team in NFL history to average less than one turnover per game in a single season.
Pennington is uncommonly cautious and accurate. He set a team record by completing 67.4 percent of his passes this year, better than past Dolphins quarterbacks Dan Marino or Bob Griese. And he has just seven picks out of his 476 throws.
"We take a lot of pride in protecting the football," Pennington told Baltimore reporters in a conference call. "We always feel that if you don’t give your opponent extra chances, you increase your chance of winning. If you don’t give them easy points and great field position for your opponent, then you increase your chance of winning.
"You still have to go out there and perform and play well, but you don’t want to give them anything easy. We have taken great pride in that all year, making sure that if a team is going to be really successful against us they have to line up and beat us and for us not to give them anything."
That’s far from a lock, though, against the Ravens.
With Pro Bowl free safety Ed Reed leading the NFL with nine interceptions, the Ravens’ defense is a constant threat to create a sudden change.
A top candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors, Reed acknowledged that Pennington presents a challenge with his penchant for avoiding turnovers.
"Chad is a good quarterback, he throws the ball where he’s supposed to throw the ball," Reed said. "He knows the coverage, he knows how to read defenses. He’s more than capable. You just have to be where you’re supposed to be, do your job and hopefully make plays."
Reed has intercepted eight passes in the past six games, and Baltimore has improved from having the worst turnover ratio in the league a year ago with a minus-17 differential to rank third overall this season with a plus-13.
One year after a 1-15 season that ended with new football boss Bill Parcells firing coach Cam Cameron, who’s now the Ravens’ offensive coordinator, the Dolphins have made a quantum leap at taking care of the football.
"You see the influence of Parcells," Ryan said. "They hold onto the football. It almost kills him if they fumble. Again, it goes to Pennington. Pennington is a smart guy. He knows where to go with the football, and he knows when to eat it. That helps him, but, hopefully, we can force some takeaways and score if we get them."
Meanwhile, no one in the NFL has made a bigger improvement at the turnover game than the Ravens’ swing of plus-30 from a year ago. Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco has only been intercepted a dozen times with just three in the past six weeks.
The Ravens are 3-3 this season when they don’t force multiple turnovers. And they’re 46-0 since 2000 when they have a plus-two turnover ratio, 61-3 when they have a plus-one or better turnover ratio, going just 14-13 when the turnover ratio is even and 8-47 with a negative turnover ratio.
"If you don’t take care of the football, you can’t win in this league," coach John Harbaugh said. "If you look at our season when we’ve protected the football and gotten turnovers, we’ve won. That’s the most important stat in football.
"It’s aggressive ball security. We want to score a lot of points, and we want to secure the football."
The Ravens have a history of taking the football away against the Dolphins with outside linebacker Terrell Suggs jumping a Pennington swing pass for a 44-yard interception return for a touchdown in a 27-13 win earlier this season.
"We’re going to try to force turnovers against the Dolphins just like we do everybody else," Harbaugh said. "If they can hold up, they’ll hold up. If they can’t, they won’t."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.