Ravens at Dolphins Wild Card Game Preview

*The Ravens are set to take on the Miami Dolphins at Dolphins Stadium for a Wild Card matchup. *

*BR.com offers a breakdown of Baltimore's playoff opponent. *

Rankings

Total Offense - 12 (345.6) Total Defense - 15 (329.0)

Rush Offense - 11 (118.6) Rush Defense - 10 (101.3)

Pass Offense - 10 (227.0) Pass Defense -25 (227.8)

Points Per Game - 21 (21.6) Points Per Game - 9 (19.8)

Sizing Them Up

This is a different Dolphins team the Ravens originally faced in Week 7. Since Baltimore defeated Miami 27-13 that October day, Miami has rattled off nine wins in their last 10 games.

Head coach Tony Sparano is getting coach of the year mentions, quarterback Chad Pennington recently was in the conversation for NFL MVP (won by Indianapolis Colts signal-caller Peyton Manning Friday) and outside linebacker Joey Porter could make a claim for the league's Defensive Player of the Year.

This is a team to be reckoned with.

Pennington leads Miami's offense with his heady play under center. He is completing passes at a 67.4 percentage (321 of 476), setting a new franchise record, and has hit on more than 70 percent of his attempts on eight occasions this year.

The Dolphins' rushing attack liberally utilizes the Wildcat formation with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams gashing defenses with misdirection and gadget plays. The duo combined for 1575 yards on the ground this year.

Considering Pennington's accuracy and Miami's commitment to the run game, it is evident that the Dolphins simply do not turn the ball over. In fact, they are tops in the NFL with a plus-17 turnover differential, giving possession away only 13 times compared to their 30 takeaways.

Defensively, Porter is the heart and soul of this unit. His 17.5 sacks this year are second in the league and give serious teeth to the Dolphins' pass rush. Even if Porter hasn't notched a sack in the past two games, he is always a threat.

Miami is also stout up front, with veteran defensive linemen Vonnie Holliday and Jason Ferguson helping to stuff ball-carriers for 4.2 yards per carry and only 101.2 rushing yards per game.

The Dolphins' secondary may lack big names, but cornerbacks Andre Goodman and Will Allen have five and three interceptions, respectively.

What's Up?

My counterpart with MiamiDolphins.com, Andy Kent, explained the scene Sparano set to make his players realize the weight of the playoffs.

"Sparano asked all 43 veterans to stand up, and then asked those vets who have not been in a playoff game to sit down and only 18 remained standing. Of those 18, only 11 have ever started a playoff game, emphasizing how an opportunity like this doesn't come around every year."

"This quartet didn't just survive one coaching change. They also lived through another. Each current starter in the secondary also started games under former coaches Nick Saban and Cam Cameron."

Sparano is praised by *Palm Beach Post *columnist Greg Stoda for his stellar coaching job.

"OK, not even a season as stunningly successful as the one playoff-bound Miami just authored in the immediate wake of last year's 1-15 debacle is enough to proclaim Sparano's inarguable genius."

Here's a fun story from Ethan Skolnik of the Miami Sun-Sentinel about two key players - Justin Smiley and Greg Camarillo - that are now on Injured Reserve and their plans for the game.

"Like crashed cars, injured players are simply towed to the side, out of the way, so traffic can keep moving."

Awards

Offensive - With 916 yards on the ground, Brown has led the Dolphins in rushing for the past four years. He has tallied 1,170 total yards this season and even completed two passes for 41 yards and a touchdown. In all, Brown is the versatile back that drives the Wildcat.

Defensive - It's difficult to give this to anyone but Porter. His sack total speaks to how he can impact a game, but the potential to strike affects the entire defense. Teams have to account for Porter on every play, which can free other rushers. Porter snared two sacks when facing the Ravens earlier this year.

Emerging Star

Wideout Davone Bess, who stepped in the starting lineup when Camarillo was lost to a knee injury in Week 12, has emerged as one of Pennington's favorite weapons. Against the Bills on Dec. 7, the undrafted free agent hauled in nine balls for 74 yards.

Over the final six weeks, Bess owns 54 receptions for 554 yards and a touchdown. Look for the speedy No. 15 to make a living catching those underneath routes Pennington loves to throw so much.

Key Matchups

Ravens S Ed Reed vs. Dolphins QB Chad Pennington

It's known that Pennington rarely makes mistakes, but Reed has been on a tear of late. In three of his four December contests, Reed has managed to grab two interceptions en route to a league-leading nine on the year. If the Ravens can get pressure on Pennington, they could force him to loft a throw, and Reed always seems to be in the right place at the right time when that happens.

Ravens WR Derrick Mason vs. Dolphins DBs

Despite playing with a painful shoulder/neck injury and having to wear a harness on his left shoulder, Mason was superb down the stretch. Fifty-one of his team-leading 80 catches came on the road this year, and he also has posted 710 of his 1,037 yards away from Baltimore. The veteran has been a master at getting open for Joe Flacco, and he could be Flacco's primary weapon again Sunday.

Quotable

Tony Sparano on Joey Porter's impact:

"Everybody keeps asking me about Chad and how important he is to our success. But certainly, Joey Porter is just as important on the other side of the football. When you have the kind of year that Joey has had this year and you make the plays that he's made, it says an awful lot for you. In our defense, with what we do, if you don't get that kind of production out of your outside linebacker, you're going to be in trouble."

Chad Pennington on how special this season was for him:"Early in training camp I felt like we had an opportunity to put together a winning season, and whatever that consisted of I really didn't know. Then as things went along and we got a few wins under our belt and started to gain some confidence, I felt like every one of us felt like, 'All right, we've got a shot at this, and we've got something to really play for and really value and really go after.'"

Duff's Take

Sunday's game is going to be the battle of a team that is stingy with the football, namely the Dolphins, and a squad that is unrelenting in going after thefts.

The Ravens' 34 takeaways are an NFL-best, while Miami's 13 turnovers are tied with the Giants for fewest in the league.

Something has to break.

In a matchup of two teams that play solid defense and feature offenses built around the running game and limiting turnovers, whoever coughs it up the most will likely be the winner.

That's just simple football.

But I think opening up the downfield passing game is going to be critical for the Ravens, aside from creating turnovers. Baltimore does its worst damage when it can establish the run early, pounding Le'Ron McClain to draw defenders up in the box.

Of course, that creates opportunities for Joe Flacco to show off that cannon he has mounted on his right shoulder. Last week, that worked, and the Ravens posted five completions of over 25 yards.

The Dolphins have given up 28 plays of 25 or more yards this season, so they are obviously susceptible to a few deep shots.

As Mark McGuire once said, "Chicks dig the long ball…" You know what? So should the Ravens.

Ed. note: These aren't necessarily the beliefs of the Ravens organization.

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