Miami Dolphins

Keys to the game: Miami Dolphins vs. Dallas Cowboys

Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi (23) dives past Buffalo Bills' Duke Williams (27) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015, in Orchard Park, N.Y.
Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi (23) dives past Buffalo Bills' Duke Williams (27) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015, in Orchard Park, N.Y. AP

When the Dolphins pass the football

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has avoided throwing an interception in each of the past two games, and he has been able to connect on a couple of deep balls as well — a 46-yarder to Rishard Matthews against Philadelphia and a 42-yarder to Kenny Stills against Buffalo the week before. But Tannehill’s primary job is to get the offense in the end zone. And the Dolphins haven’t been doing that with any great regularity the past three weeks. Miami has averaged 1.6 touchdowns per game the past three games. One way to perhaps quench the touchdown drought is a greater use of tight ends in the red zone. Jordan Cameron has been limited to just one catch in each of the past two weeks for a total of 11 yards. And although he was slowed by an ankle injury, he remains a threat that goes unused in the red zone’s short spaces. The Cowboys pass defense is nothing if not unspectacular. Dallas is ranked 14th against the pass, but the problem is the Cowboys are not collecting turnovers. They are 22nd in the NFL in interception percentage, and their five interceptions are tied for 29th in the league. Oh, and outside of Greg Hardy, the Cowboys have not shown a fierce pass rush.

ADVANTAGE: Miami

When the Dolphins run the football

Rookie Jay Ajayi continues to impress with his downhill-running approach, which is a welcome change of pace from Lamar Miller’s great speed and slashing style. The Dolphins are averaging 102 rushing yards per game since Ajayi came off the short-term injured reserve list. They averaged those same 102 yards the previous seven games before Ajayi showed up, but that was buoyed by an outlier game against Houston in which the Dolphins rushed for 248 yards. The run game is better. Trust me. Like their pass defense, the Dallas run D is merely acceptable. Sean Lee is playing weak-side linebacker now, and although he has played well, he hasn’t had the resounding impact he had two years ago at middle linebacker. Middle linebacker Rolando McClain, who has played only five games, has not recaptured the run-stopping prowess he showed last season. If the Dolphins keep the game close and are stubborn about running the football, they should have some success.

ADVANTAGE: Miami

When the Cowboys pass the football

Everything changed for the Cowboys when doctors cleared starting quarterback Tony Romo to play after he missed seven games, all losses, with a broken clavicle. Romo generally throws the football on time. He is aware and, despite his increasingly limited mobility, still moves well within the pocket. He has had chemistry in the past with top receiver Dez Bryant. He knows where tight end Jason Witten, the security blanket, is at all times. Most importantly, Romo is good in the fourth quarter, which is why he’s the second highest-rated fourth-quarter passer in NFL history. That should help the Cowboys, who have generally been in every game they have played but simply haven’t been able to make one game-winning play. The question is can Romo come off an injury and immediately be, well, Tony Romo?

ADVANTAGE: Dallas

When the Cowboys run the football

The breakup of DeMarco Murray and the Cowboys diminished both, though it fattened Murray’s wallet and helped the Dallas’ salary cap. The Cowboys calculated that any good runner could step in and pick up where Murray (1,845 yards to lead the NFL) left off last season. But in replacing Murray with Darren McFadden, the team filled the position but not the need for an excellent running back. McFadden has been solid lately but is still averaging only 3.8 yards per carry. The field might open up to McFadden now with Tony Romo at quarterback and defenses more wary of a Dallas quarterback not named Weeden or Cassel. Interestingly, the Cowboys were counting on Joseph Randle to help, and he was averaging 4.1 yards per carry. But that shoplifting arrest late last year (there’s a video), and his leaving the team this year led to his being waived and suspended by the NFL. The Dallas offensive line is still a good run-blocking unit, but someone has to tote the ball to make that effective. The Dolphins are still 31st in the NFL against the run but have lately gotten better play up front from Ndamukong Suh.

ADVANTAGE: Even

Special teams

Unable to mock Caleb Sturgis this week, we turn inward with expectations the Dolphins address decisions by kick returner Damien Williams, who last week seemed unsure on a kickoff return — coming out of the end zone, stopping at the 1-yard line, injuring himself when he hit the brakes, getting tackled at the 1-yard line, and thus setting the Dolphins up for a safety on the ensuing offensive series. Jarvis Landry has proven a better returner, but he’s handling punts and playing receiver, so the Dolphins have felt a need to use someone else on kickoffs. The Cowboys are good returning kicks, not so good returning punts. They have blocked both a punt and a kick this season. Kicker Dan Bailey is the NFL’s all-time most accurate kicker with a 90.4 career percentage.

ADVANTAGE: Dallas

Coaching

Dan Campbell grew up rooting for the Cowboys. And Jason Garrett coached the Dolphins quarterbacks in 2005-06. What does that mean? Zero. The issue here is the Cowboys have a deep, experienced staff that includes two former NFL head coaches — Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli — and a former college head coach in Derek Dooley. Tight ends coach Michael Pope coached Campbell, and the Dolphins’ interim coach freely admits most of the techniques he used to coach tight ends were learned from Pope.

ADVANTAGE: Dallas

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