The early game on Sunday brings what would have been called before the season the most improbable matchup of all: the 11-5 Baltimore Ravens head into Miami to square off with the AFC East Champion, 11-5 Dolphins.
And the reason that this scenario was so unthinkable just four months ago is that both teams were coming off sub-five-win seasons—Miami with one—and both were being led by rookie head coaches who had never been head coaches at any level before.
But alas we find ourselves with quite an intriguing matchup.
I guess if you had to choose one team that would've been able to make such a dramatic turnaround in such a short amount of time, it would have to have been the Ravens. After going 13-3 in '06, offensive injuries derailed this team's hopes and chances in '07 and they finished at 4-12, but the heart and soul of this team—the defense—was still there.
So this season, more out of circumstance (Boller and Smith were hurt) rather than design, the Ravens were forced to go with their first-round pick, rookie QB Joe Flacco, and he did more for this team than they could've ever imagined.
For the Dolphins, no one could've seen this coming. After winning just one game in '07, they brought in a rookie head coach, Tony Sparano, traded away their best player (DE Jason Taylor), and made very few splashes in free agency.
But then Christmas came early in Miami when the Jets discarded Chad Pennington in August. Parcells wasted no time in picking up the QB he had drafted in 2000 (he was the Jets' GM at the time) because he and Sparano wanted an efficient, cerebral QB. And that's exactly what Pennington is.
So onto the football game, which is a re-match of an earlier game this season in which the Ravens defeated the Fins, 27-13.
When the Ravens are on offense, their focus will be to run the ball. And with McGahee, McClain, and Rice, they're pretty good at it. They'll use this to set up the pass.
Now the Dolphins will try and counter this by bringing more men into the box, but that formula hasn't been as successful for others because Flacco has made team's pay with long passes to Clayton and Mason. That being said, until he (Flacco) does, we don't see Miami showing much respect to the passing game.
And even with the added attention to the running game, it's still good enough to average three to four yards per carry and keep Flacco in manageable third down situations.
When Baltimore does drop back to pass, look for them to spread the ball around to everyone on the field. This is the beauty of a Cam Cameron led offense; you have to account for the backs as well as receivers, because he'll find a way to exploit mismatches.
In the beginning, we see a lot of short passes to keep the chains moving, and once Miami brings their secondary up to take away the slants, screens and crossing patterns, look for Flacco to go up top and locate Derrick Mason down the field. He should be able to beat CB Will Allen on these plays.
For Miami, we think they'll implement a similar game plan to what they featured last week in their win over the Jets: a mixture of the run, short pass, and the Wildcat formation. And we think that they'll have to do even more trickery this week because if they choose to run a conventional offense, they'll have no chance.
To just line up and try to run on this Ravens' defense, which is one of the best in the NFL, will lead to three-and-outs all day long. Ray Lewis and Co. is too good at stopping the run and will smother Brown and Williams.
So they'll need to run the Wildcat around 25 percent of the time because this formation could present problems and confuse the Ravens' defenders on which gap to attack.
And when they do pass, the way to hurt an attack-style defense is through the air, but with ball hawk safety Ed Reed back there, this isn't an easy proposition. Look for them to try and hit WR Bess and TE Fasano on the short patterns and strike deep a few times to WR Ginn Jr., but against this defense, and with Pennington's arm strength, it won't come easy...if at all.
As this game comes to a close, look for the Baltimore Ravens to pull out an easy victory by at least 10 points, somewhere in the vicinity of 20-10 or 24-13. The Dolphins play very well as a team and are technically sound, but we don't see very many opportunities for them to score on this Ravens' defense, and I think we'll learn from this game that the 27-13 beating Baltimore put on them earlier this season was not an aberration.
So the Ravens will move on to the second round to face the top-seeded Titans, which should be a heck of a matchup, while the Dolphins, who improved their win total by 10 games from a year ago, will go home with nothing to hang their heads about.