In a game that qualified as more dominating than the final score indicated, Baltimore took a 27-9 victory Sunday at Dolphin Stadium in an AFC wild-card matchup. In the process of putting together this purposeful and thorough victory, the Ravens sent a message to the rest of the playoff field that they are the most likely wild-card team to follow in the footsteps of Pittsburgh in 2005 and the Giants last season – something that Baltimore accomplished en route to their Super Bowl XXXV victory following the 2000 campaign.
"We have a vision," Baltimore running back LeRon McClain said. "We have a vision of that Lombardi Trophy. We've had it since March when we started working out and preparing."
The Ravens kept the pressure on Pennington.
(US Presswire/Steve Mitchell)
The Ravens will carry that vision with them to Tennessee on Saturday for the second round of the playoffs. Along the way, they grabbed their first playoff win since 2001. Like that game that was also at Miami, the Ravens did this with a style of play that was beyond physical. It was intimidating.
The Ravens forced five turnovers from a Dolphins team that had only 13 coming into the season. Miami's total tied the Giants for the fewest in the league this year and for the fewest ever by a team since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1976. All five turnovers came during a stretch of six legitimate possessions that bridged the second and third quarters.
In so doing, the Ravens basically ripped the heart out of the Dolphins and showed it to them like in some Indiana Jones movie. The only difference was that this was real.
"Hey, you have to be a man to play on this defense and we have some rough, tough, mean guys out there," Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "That's their personality. It's a football mentality that you have to have if you're going to be good and this group has it. We've been working on that here for 10 years since I got here.
"I've been part of that and I'm proud of it."
It would be remiss not to comment on the state of the Dolphins and their fine 2008 season. While the transition from 1-15 to 11-5 has been a phenomenal NFL story, there are certain realities that people need to understand before expecting the Dolphins to make another huge leap in contending status.
Despite the presence of three top-10 draft picks (running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr.), the Dolphins are sorely short of talent. Specifically, quarterback Chad Pennington isn't built to beat championship-caliber defenses. His soft-tossing, hyper-accurate arm is fine in the regular season when Pennington can feast on the vast array of mediocrity that the NFL presents. When Pennington plays against teams that can either close off the passing lanes he likes to throw to or redirect his wide receivers, Pennington has problems.
Here's the telling stat about Pennington: In 15 games against the rest of the NFL this season, he had six interceptions. In two games against the Ravens, he threw five picks.
By the second quarter against Baltimore on Sunday, the Dolphins offense looked like it was being played in a shoe box with Pennington throwing one short pass after another and usually to the wrong team. The only excitement was a 45-yard catch-and-mostly-run by wide receiver Davone Bess. That play set up a spectacular 2-yard touchdown pass from Pennington to Ronnie Brown.
That score ended a run of six legitimate possessions by the Dolphins (they had a kneel-down at the end of the first half) in which they had five turnovers, including four interceptions by Pennington. The most telling interception was on a route in the middle that he tried to squeeze in the third quarter but was picked by Baltimore safety Ed Reed.
That was Reed's second interception of the game. His first came on a desperate long throw by Pennington as linebacker Terrell Suggs was bearing down on him. Reed gathered the ball, avoided a tackle as he circled back to his left, then ran all the way across the field to the right to complete a 64-yard touchdown return that gave the Ravens a 10-3 lead in the second quarter.
"That was sweet to get that one in my first playoff victory," said Reed, who has returned eight turnovers for touchdowns in his career. "That was something special."
Moreover, the blocking on the return was something to behold. The Ravens have become so conditioned to Reed returning turnovers that they react differently when he has the ball.
"When most [defensive] guys get the ball, as a defensive player you just run to them, looking for a block," said defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who buried Miami wide receiver Ted Ginn with a block during the return. "With Ed, because you know he's so good at it, you're looking to help him set up the return, so you wait for him to run to you."
By the time the barrage of turnovers was over, the Ravens led 20-3. It might as well have been 41-3 as the Ravens kept pounding and pounding. While the Dolphins briefly created hope with Brown's touchdown, the promise was short-lived.
With 4:53 remaining, Baltimore running back Willis McGahee broke a 48-yard run that put Baltimore in position for its final touchdown. The run came on a play that the Ravens had called at least six times earlier in the game. It was a no-frills call that was simply about wearing down an opponent.
"If you keep beating and beating on something, eventually something is going to break," said McGahee, whose run highlighted a 33-carry, 151-yard effort for the Ravens. "On that play, the levee broke."
After McGahee's run, Dolphins fans headed to the aisles faster than water through a broken dam. By the time Baltimore rookie quarterback Joe Flacco finished the drive with a 5-yard run on a quarterback draw for the final margin, about the only people left to pull for the Dolphins were the cheerleaders.
And more than a few Ravens took notice.
"That's the only thing the Dolphins have that's better than the Ravens, those cheerleaders," a Baltimore player was overheard saying.