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Monday, December 29, 2008
Dolphins stop to celebrate, but know Ravens await


 
 AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
 Quarterback Chad Pennington helped lead Miami's historic turnaround from a 1-15 season.

 Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Miami Dolphins were reveling in their improbable accomplishment. From worst to first they went, a feat clinched with a 24-17 victory Sunday over the New York Jets at the Meadowlands.

Already they wore commemorative gray ball caps, emblazoned with their logo underneath "Division Champions" in block letters and with "Playoffs" displayed on the headband. White T-shirts told the same tale.

"Usually, my wife wants the T-shirt," Dolphins nose tackle Jason Ferguson said of his beloved swag, "but not this time."

Defensive end Vonnie Holliday took off his AFC East championship hat and slowly panned it, point blank, before a throng of camera lenses. He wanted the naysayers and the doubters to take a close look at it.

As the music thumped in the visitors' locker room, first-year Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland leaned against a wall, watched his players and soaked in the moment.

Moments before he and owner Wayne Huizenga phoned football operations boss Bill Parcells, who didn't make the trip, to share the celebration.

"He was excited for about 30 seconds," Ireland said of his brief chat with Parcells, "and then he said, 'Let's get back to business.' "

Miami's historic turnaround from a 1-15 season was 12 months in the making. Ireland said, "we're going to let this soak in for 12 hours. Then we'll get back to work."

For the first time in seven seasons, the Dolphins will play a 17th game. They will host the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.

While the Dolphins take a moment to rejoice, assistant director of player personnel Brian Gaine is hard at work compiling the advance scouting reports. Gaine won't have to start from scratch on this one because the teams already have met this season -- and it wasn't pretty for Dolfans.

Baltimore handled Miami like few teams this year, posting a comprehensive 27-13 victory in Dolphin Stadium on Oct. 19.

"In the playoffs, everybody starts off 0-0," Ferguson said. "So if they're holding that up, saying they beat us last time and we're going to be the same team. ... We're definitely going to be a totally different team. We worked hard since then."

Both teams have gone on torrid runs since then. The Dolphins won nine of their last 10 regular-season games, their lone loss coming against the New England Patriots.

The Ravens used their success over the Dolphins to kick off a stretch of nine victories in their last 11 games, beating the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys along the way. The Ravens' only losses in that span were to the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers.

"The Ravens are an outstanding football team," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. "We know that. It's a tremendous defense, and they beat us already. The Jets beat us the first time they played us as well.

"We're well aware of how good a football team they are. They're playing tremendously
right now. I think our guys are playing pretty good, too."

With that in mind, let's take a glance at what transpired in Week 7 between the Ravens and Dolphins:

1. One of Chad Pennington's poorer games.
Pennington is worthy of MVP consideration for what he has provided the Dolphins, but his game against the Ravens was disappointing. His stat line looked decent enough: He completed 24 of 35 passes for 295 yards and one touchdown with an interception for a 92.0 passer rating.

But Pennington's interception changed the game. Perhaps his worst decision of the year came when he threw it directly to Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs in the flat. Suggs had nothing between him and the end zone 44 yards away to break a 3-3 tie and give the Ravens a lead they wouldn't relinquish.

2. The Ravens ran roughshod.
The Ravens gained 139 rushing yards, the most by a Dolphins opponent until the Kansas City Chiefs ground out 180 yards in Week 16. But the Ravens amassed 101 of their rushing yards in the second half to demoralize the Dolphins as the game wore on.

Willis McGahee ran 19 times for 105 yards and a touchdown and caught two passes for 47 yards.

This should make Dolfans swallow hard: Le'Ron McClain, who has been a bull lately, was used sparingly in Week 7. He had only six carries for 17 yards. In McClain's last six games he rushed for 531 yards and five touchdowns.

3. The Ravens defense made bigger plays.
The Dolphins' offensive line generally kept Pennington safe, allowing one sack. But in addition to Suggs' touchdown, the Ravens bottled the Dolphins' eccentric Wildcat offense and reduced running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams to non-factor status.

The Dolphins ran for only 71 yards. One yard came from the Wildcat, which had been dazzling in the three weeks leading into that game.

"We got a lot of work ahead of us," Brown said Sunday after beating the Jets. "We can't make the mistakes we made today. We're going to have to come out and play fundamental football."

Brown also said the Ravens have "a lot of guys that can make plays, but the funny thing about it is on the offensive side of the ball we have guys that can make plays."

4. Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco wasn't disrupted enough.
The Dolphins got to Flacco twice all afternoon, and it wasn't enough. Flacco, making his sixth career start, completed 17 of 23 passes for 218 yards and one touchdown. He didn't
throw an interception and finished with a 120.2 passer rating, his best of the year.

"I know what we've got to do," Ferguson said. "Our defense has got to really try to play with their defense. Their defense plays with a lot of emotion. They make a lot of plays for them.

"We really got to match their defense. Our offense is going to handle their business, but we've got to help them out and play great."

5. Baltimore owned the fourth quarter.
The Ravens kept the ball for 10 minutes, 20 seconds in the final quarter. They ran 19 plays to the Dolphins' 11, including a three-and-out series.

The Ravens converted two of their four third downs, while the Dolphins failed on two third downs and one fourth down.

But the Dolphins have been solid in the fourth quarter over the past month. They've won several close games down the homestretch.

Asked Sunday about Miami's fourth-quarter prowess, Ferguson rapped his knuckles on the side of his locker stall while talking proudly.

"It sounds good," Ferguson said. "Let me get some wood ..."

Knock, knock.

"Because all I know we own the fourth quarter lately ..."

Knock, knock.

"And I'm going to continue doing it.

"We worked hard all through the game, and knowing in the fourth quarter we had a chance to win, we made plays on defense. The offense got a field goal. That was it then. We felt the momentum change."

We'll find out next Sunday if the Dolphins have changed momentum enough to knock off a team that beat them handily 10 weeks ago.