Sunday, January 4, 2009

Ravens-Dolphins Playoff Preview: An Improbable Reunion

Who would have thought when the Baltimore Ravens defeated the Miami Dolphins 27-13 back on Oct. 19 that these two teams would be meeting again in the playoffs?

First-year coaches Tony Sparano and John Harbaugh have done outstanding jobs with their respective teams as Sparano’s Dolphins (11-5) won nine of their last 10 and Harbaugh’s Ravens (11-5) nine of their last 11 to reach the postseason.

Miami possesses a dual threat in Ronnie Brown (916 yards) and Ricky Williams (659 yards) on the ground. They will attempt to run their famed Wildcat formation, but Baltimore’s second-ranked defense did an excellent job shutting it down in the first meeting, holding it to only four yards on five plays.

The Dolphins will depend on quarterback and Comeback Player of the Year-winner Chad Pennington to make plays with his arm against a banged-up secondary. Cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Fabian Washington are both listed as questionable but are expected to play.

The Baltimore secondary can be vulnerable to the deep ball, but Pennington is more of an intermediate passer. Receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. led Miami with 790 receiving yards and could test the Baltimore defensive backs though Ed Reed is always stalking in the defensive backfield. Baltimore's defense leads the league with 26 interceptions.

Ravens running back Willis McGahee will again be motivated returning to the city where he played his college ball. In one of his few big games of the year, McGahee rushed for 105 yards in their regular season meeting.

The Miami defense is 10th against the run, but the Ravens will try to grind it out with Le’Ron McClain and McGahee. Rookie Ray Rice has missed the past three games with a shin injury, so it is doubtful he’ll have much of an impact.

Quarterback Joe Flacco had a huge game against Jacksonville, throwing for 246 yards in the first half. The Dolphins’ 25th-ranked pass defense will need to be aware of the deep ball. Flacco has found a deep target in Mark Clayton as the two connected four times for 128 yards last week.

The Ravens’ mainstay at receiver is veteran Derrick Mason. He continues to battle a shoulder injury but posted 1,037 receiving yards this season. Flacco will look to Mason to move the chains consistently to keep the Miami offense off the field.

The Ravens will use an unbalanced line with two tackles on the same side to block Pro Bowl linebacker Joey Porter (17.5 sacks). The key to containing Porter is running plays directly at him to wear down the outside linebacker, slowing his motor on passing plays. Left tackle Jared Gaither has been outstanding but will face another test from Porter.

Miami’s amazing turnaround will come to an end on Sunday against Baltimore’s tough defense. The Wildcat did not confuse the Ravens in October when it was still a novelty, so it does not figure to fool them in January.

The Ravens have not only beaten the teams they were supposed to this season, but they’ve dominated them. Baltimore’s net points rating (points scored versus points allowed) is +141 while Miami’s stands at only +28.

Reed has been in the zone over the second half of the season, so look for him to bait Pennington into throwing a rare, but key, interception to set up a Baltimore score.

The Ravens will control the tempo of the game with their methodical running game and will mix in a few deep balls to Clayton as they move on to Tennessee in the Divisional Round next weekend

The prediction: Ravens, 24-13

Can the Ravens win their first playoff game since the 2001 season? Or will the Dolphins continue their Cinderella season by advancing to the Divisional Round? Leave your comments and predictions below.

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