AFC: Strong Finishes, WC Date for 'Fins, Ravens

Newyorkjets.com will profile each playoff game in this NFL postseason, with a special eye on Jets angles in each of the matchups. Today: the AFC Wild Card Game being played Sunday afternoon:    

(6) BALTIMORE (11-5) at (3) MIAMI (11-5), 1 p.m. EST, CBS

Storylines

Led by rookie head coaches, the Ravens and Dolphins gained surprising postseason entries. The 46-year-old John Harbaugh, who spent 10 seasons with the Eagles in Philadelphia before moving on to Baltimore, and the 47-year-old Tony Sparano, a five-year assistant in Dallas with the Cowboys before heading east, both immediately turned their teams into contenders.

While the Birds had to settle for a second-place finish behind the Steelers in the AFC North, the 'Fins went from 1-15 to AFC East Division champions. A 24-17 victory over the Jets at the Meadowlands last weekend propelled Sparano's gang to an unlikely division title and also kept the 11-5 Patriots home for the New Year.

''AFC East champions,'' Sparano told his players in the visitors locker room. ``How does that sound? Why not the Dolphins?''

A year after winning just five games, Baltimore lost just five games in '08. The 27-7 romp over the Jaguars in the season finale propelled the Ravens into the dance.

"Back in training camp, we just knew how special this team could be," Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis said.

Most experts didn't know how special the Ravens or the Dolphins were when those teams met in South Florida back in Week 7. Baltimore halted a three-game losing streak with a 27-13 victory, moving to 3-3 while the 2-4 Dolphins remained in last place in the AFC East.

Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs scored on a 44-yard interception return and the Dolphins were able to amass only 4 yards in five plays out of their "Wildcat" formation.

"This was going to make or break our season," Suggs said. "When you lose three or four games in a row, players are only human and they stop believing. We've got guys believing."

Statistical Picture

The always tough Baltimore defense finished the regular season with NFL top-3 rankings in overall defense (2nd), rush defense (3rd), pass defense (2nd) and scoring defense (3rd).

Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco had a solid first season, but the Ravens ranked just 28th in passing offense. They do have a punishing ground attack, though, and were fourth in the league in rushing.

The Dolphins' pass offense and rush offense were each 10th-ranked in the league.

Turnovers might decide the outcome and both clubs posted tremendous margins during the regular season. The Dolphins, who tied an NFL record by turning the ball over just 13 times, led the league with a plus-17 margin and the Ravens, who led the league with 34 takeaways, were third at plus-13.

Playoff Histories

This will be the second postseason contest played between the teams.

Miami, whose all-time playoff record is 20-19, actually hosted the Ravens in its most recent "second-season" game, played following the 2001 regular season. After Olindo Mare got the 'Fins off to a 3-0 lead in the first quarter, the Ravens dominated the rest of the way and ended the AFC Wild Card contest with 20 unanswered points. Terry Allen picked up 109 yards and one touchdown on the ground and the Ravens D held the Dolphins to 151 total yards.

The Dolphins have appeared in five NFL championship games and won two Super Bowls. Since opening for business in 1996, the Ravens have compiled a 5-3 mark in the postseason and won their first world championship in Super Bowl XXXV with their defeat of the Giants.

Jet Fuel

A trio of Dolphins — NT Jason Ferguson, T Nate Garner and offensive coordinator Dan Henning — and a pair of Ravens — TE Daniel Wilcox and WR coach Jim Hostler — all spent some time with the Green & White, but Chad Pennington is the story with the connections.

After eight seasons with the Jets, Pennington was released in June when the team traded for Brett Favre. Pennington quickly landed in Miami with former Jets boss Bill Parcells, a master rebuilder who originally selected him with the third of his four first-round picks, 18th overall, in the 2000 draft.

Pennington, whose 97.4 passer rating this season ranks second among all qualifying quarterbacks, will get MVP consideration for his career rebirth. He already has received his second NFL Comeback Player of the Year award in three years after completing 67.4 percent of his passes for a career-high 3,653 yards with 12 TDs and seven INTs.

''He fell down, but he got back up,'' wide receiver Ted Ginn said of Pennington. ``He's still working, and he's still playing. He came here, took over, and we got behind him as a team.''

Do we need to remind Jets fans of their playoff history with the Dolphins? The infamous "Mud Bowl" played at the Orange Bowl on Jan. 23, 1983, resulted in a 14-0 Miami win. The teams totaled 12 turnovers and A.J. Duhe was the 'Fins hero, intercepting Richard Todd three times and returning the final one 35 yards for a TD early in the final quarter. It was the first time in NFL history that a playoff game was deadlocked, 0-0, at halftime.

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