WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Miami has been a far more efficient team on offense over the course of its winning streak, with Moore (1319 passing yards, 7 TD, 5 INT) displaying very good accuracy and decision-making during that time frame and the team showing dramatic improvement in both converting third downs and scoring within the red zone — two areas in which the Dolphins really struggled early on. Miami has been successful on 50 percent (13-of-26) of its third-down tries in the last two weeks, and the offense produced touchdowns in all four of its trips inside Buffalo’s 20-yard line in last Sunday’s rout. Though physical wideout Brandon Marshall (54 receptions, 747 yards, 2 TD) is the clear-cut go-to receiver in the passing game, last week’s result proved Miami can adjust when teams game plan to stop the two-time Pro Bowl honoree like the Bills did. With Marshall held to just one catch, running back Reggie Bush (506 rushing yards, 32 receptions, 5 total TD) and rookie tight end Charles Clay (12 receptions, 1 TD) combined for 103 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions in the Buffalo game, while Fasano (17 receptions, 4 TD) registered his fourth touchdown grab in four games and has emerged as Moore’s preferred choice near the goal line. Bush and rookie Daniel Thomas (406 rushing yards, 7 receptions, 1 TD) have split ball- carrying duties for an offense that’s put up the ninth-most rushing attempts in the league this year.
The Dolphins will be attempting to grind it out against a Dallas defense that reduced Washington’s impotent running game to 60 yards a week ago, but had permitted a worrisome 178.7 rushing yards over its three previous outings. Inside linebacker and leading tackler Sean Lee (65 tackles, 3 INT) had been out for part of that stretch with a dislocated wrist, but was back in form with a 10-tackle output against the Redskins that helped key the club’s run-stopping effort. Safety Gerald Sensabaugh (53 tackles, 2 INT) added nine stops in the win, but also sustained an injury to his right foot that could affect his status for Thursday. The secondary is already without starting cornerback Mike Jenkins due to a hamstring injury that’s kept him out the last three weeks, though replacement Orlando Scandrick (23 tackles, 1 INT) came up with a fourth- quarter interception versus Washington in his absence. The Cowboys have picked off seven passes in all during their three-game streak, with the consistent pressure that high-impact outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (38 tackles) and steady end Jason Hatcher (16 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) have brought having contributed to that strong total. Ware’s 14 sacks so far this season is tops in the NFL, and he’s notched at least one in all but two of Dallas’ 10 games.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Injuries to wide receiver Miles Austin and running back Felix Jones over the past month haven’t slowed down a Dallas offense that’s averaging 398.8 total yards per game (6th overall) and ranks sixth in the league in passing yards (277.0 ypg) too much. The precise passing and largely error-free play of Romo (2800 passing yards, 19 TD, 7 INT) has had a lot to due with that lack of a drop-off, and the ability of well-traveled wideout Laurent Robinson (31 receptions, 5 TD) to step into Austin’s spot has certainly been an asset as well. He’s recorded a touchdown catch in four straight games as one of the top options in a quality receiving corps that also boasts a seven-time Pro Bowler at tight end in Jason Witten (52 receptions, 670 receptions, 5 TD) and a dangerous deep threat in talented second-year pro Dez Bryant (35 receptions, 6 TD), who’s averaging nearly 17 yards per catch on the year. The biggest boost to the offense as of late has come from running back DeMarco Murray (747 rushing yards, 2 TD, 21 receptions), however, with the promising rookie having racked up three games of 135 rushing yards or more over the past five weeks in bringing needed balance to an attack that had been heavily reliant on throwing the ball early in the season. Jones (271 rushing yards, 1 TD, 15 receptions) returned from a four-game absence in the Washington game and may be called on for a larger workload this week after Murray finished with a career-high 31 touches last Sunday.
A defense that was supposed to be Miami’s strong suit in 2011 has finally come on after failing to live up to expectations in the initial stages of this season. The Dolphins held both Washington and Buffalo under 250 total yards in their latest two wins and have garnered four interceptions in those games — two more than the team had over its first eight contests of the year. A secondary that’s still surrendering an average of 251.1 passing yards per week (25th overall) has been stabilized somewhat by top cornerback Vontae Davis’ (23 tackles, 1 INT) return from a hamstring injury that caused him to miss four games earlier in the season, and the backfield has also benefited by an upgraded pass rush keyed by second-year end Jared Odrick (15 tackles, 4 sacks) and accomplished veteran outside linebacker Jason Taylor (10 tackles, 4 sacks), both of whom have recorded sacks in consecutive weeks. The Dolphins have been very stout against the run as well, with a quality front seven headlined by the inside linebacker duo of Burnett (56 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Karlos Dansby (66 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) having limited the opposition to a scant 69 rushing yards through the past four games, The team rendered a normally-potent Buffalo ground game to only 41 yards last week.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The turnover battle. Both these teams’ win streaks have been fueled by excelling in this critical department, with Dallas owning a stellar 9-to-1 takeaway-to-giveaway ratio over the past three weeks and the Miami defense having forced four of its overall low sum of eight turnovers in its past two victories. Whichever of these participants can maintain its recent level of performance stands a good chance of coming out a winner.
The Miami defense. The Dolphins simply don’t have the weapons to outscore the Cowboys in a track meet, so their fate rests largely on the strength of a revitalized defense that hasn’t allowed a touchdown in 12 straight quarters. Miami has also been remarkably stingy inside the red zone, an area where the Cowboys have had problems scoring all throughout this season.
Give Murray the ball. The Cowboys are 4-0 when the rookie running back has had 20 or more carries in a game, and the team has averaged an outstanding 177.3 rushing yards in those contests. If Dallas has its ground game humming in addition to another crisp effort from Romo, the Dolphins will be hard-pressed to win here.
Prediction – Two teams that looked like a couple of turkeys a few weeks back should provide a relatively-entertaining contest to fill the time between the two marquee matchups that will take place on Thursday. Though the Cowboys have been strong at home this season and historically good on Thanksgiving, this one may not be so easy due to Miami’s dominance on defense as of late and Moore’s emergence into a serviceable quarterback. However, shutting down a balanced Dallas offense with a host of high-caliber playmakers will be far more difficult than doing so against the anemic units of Kansas City, Washington and Buffalo — the Dolphins’ three victims during their winning run. Miami should be able to keep the Cowboys from scoring at will, but may not have the firepower to put up the necessary points to extend its streak. Dallas 21 Miami 13