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|AP Photo/Jeffrey M. Boan|
|Chad Pennington faced constant pressure from Baltimore's defense and threw four interceptions.|
MIAMI -- Halftime couldn't have arrived soon enough for Chad Pennington. He'd just made it through his worst first half of the season, probably of his career, considering the stakes.
Pennington had a few moments to regroup, to shake off those two second-quarter interceptions, especially the one that was brought back for a touchdown, and lead the Miami Dolphins to another victory Sunday.
The Baltimore Ravens led by only 10 points, and with plenty of recent examples to draw from, the Dolphins had no reason to resign themselves to defeat.
The Dolphins knew they had the ball to start the second half. The mission, of course, was to score, but at the very least it was essential -- mandatory -- for Miami to flip the field.
Pennington awaited his first opportunity to take back the game. The first two plays were Ronnie Brown rushes for 1-yard gains. Then it was Pennington's turn to throw.
The runner-up for league MVP dropped back and lofted a long spiral to Davone Bess. The Ravens intercepted that one too, and returned it to the Dolphins' 39-yard line.
"I'd like to have that one back," Pennington said after the game.
All Pennington could do was swallow hard, but Baltimore's cleat never came off Miami's throat. He would throw a fourth interception as well.
The improbable run from league doormats to AFC East champions came to an end Sunday at Dolphin Stadium with a resounding 27-9 loss.
The Dolphins committed 13 turnovers all season, tying the NFL record for a 16-game season. They led the NFL with a plus-17 turnover differential. They had a record streak of 17 straight games with one or fewer giveaways.
On Sunday, they collapsed. Pennington's four interceptions set a Dolphins playoff record and surpassed his total from the final eight regular-season games. Patrick Cobbs also lost a fumble. The Ravens' five takeaways tied a playoff record they set in the 2000 AFC championship and matched in the Super Bowl.
"Everything that we prided ourselves on doing, we didn't do today," Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter said. "In the playoff games, you just can't do some of the things we did. We pride ourselves on no penalties and taking care of the ball and playing good defense and that that type of stuff that got us to this point, and today, in all phases, we didn't hold up to the end of our bargain."
Most surprising was Pennington's awful performance.
The NFL's comeback player of the year, who quarterbacked the Dolphins to an 11-5 record and helped an organization believe again, had one of the worst games of his life when it mattered most.
Pennington completed 25 of 38 passes for 252 yards and one touchdown, but his four interceptions left him with a 53.7 passer rating. The Ravens sacked him three times.
But what can you say to the guy who made the single-biggest difference to the greatest single-season turnaround in NFL history?
"I told Chad Pennington that he's my guy, and that we believe in the guy wholeheartedly," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. "I couldn't thank him enough for what he's done for us. The guy's a real trooper."
Nobody in the Dolphins' locker room was going to blame Pennington for this one, even though the quarterback position is the most important and he clearly was a liability Sunday.
Earlier in the week, New York Jets running back Thomas Jones criticized his coaching staff for not pulling Brett Favre from a Week 17 loss to the Dolphins. Favre threw three interceptions while Pennington, cast aside by the Jets to make room for Favre, efficiently outworked his former team.
"I love Chad," Dolphins linebacker Akin Ayodele said. "It's not Chad's fault we lost this game. It's our fault as a team. Chad is the reason we're at this point. He's the reason we made it."
Pennington gained a reputation among Jets fans as a quality quarterback who was good enough to win games and maybe get them into the playoffs -- but nothing more.
They'll be saying "I told you so" for the next several months, but deep down inside they wish they had him back in green and white.
After the game, Pennington's teammates came at him in waves. They told him they had his back. They suggested he forget about one bad afternoon. They thanked him for bringing them back from the dead.
Defensive end Vonnie Holliday called Pennington "the backbone of our team."
"I can't say enough about these guys," Pennington said. "They've been unbelievable. They've supported me since the first day I walked into this locker room.
"It's been magical. That's why it hurts even worse. I really wanted to keep this thing going and to really do some great things."