Sunday, January 4, 2009

Playoff Pregame: Ravens at Dolphins

Before the season began, most people wouldn't have dreamed the Ravens could make the playoffs. The team was coming off a 5-11 season. They had a new head coach that was a former special teams coach plus a new offensive coordinator. They were depending on a rookie quarterback coming from a division I-AA school. They had one of the hardest schedules of the season. Yet despite all of this, the Ravens put together a tremendous 11-5 season and the last wild card spot. By all accounts, the Ravens should be very happy with their season. But all of that does not matter now. Now that the Ravens are here, they are in it to win it.

The road through the playoffs will be a difficult one for the Ravens, as they must play every game on the road. But to start, they will faceoff against another team that was not expected to make the playoffs because of their 1-15 record last season and new head coach, that being the AFC East champion Miami Dolphins.

What I'm Wondering:
--Will the Dolphins learn from their meeting with the Ravens?
These two teams tangoed in mid-October with the Ravens winning 27-13. Back then, the Miami offense was relying on the running back direct snap and run, more popularly know as "the Wildcat," and the Ravens absolutely stuffed it. Although the game was close towards the middle of the 4th quarter, the Ravens defense was solid in shutting down the running game. A lot of talk during that week was about the return of Cam Cameron to Miami after he left as head coach last season. Cameron handled the situation well and the Ravens coaches defended him, and the Ravens players played well for him on the field, vindicating the Ravens coordinator. Some Miami players got caught up in the talks and it distracted them during the week. But this week will be much different. Although there is some talk about Cameron, it is not nearly as much as it was in the regular season. Now it is all about business. The Dolphins know full well that their "Wildcat" system did not work against the Ravens, so they will need to adjust it for this game. The Ravens need to know this as well, just because they dominated the Dolphins in October, doesn't mean they'll do it now.

--Will Joe Flacco and the offensive line be ready for a playoff atmosphere?
Joe Flacco has exceeded expectations this season, no question. But the playoffs are a different monster. You win and you stay alive, you lose and you go home. In some ways, the win against the Jaguars was the same way, so Flacco has as least played under the scenario of "win or go home." When you play with this mentality, it is easy to tense up, be more cautious on your throws, and not take the necessary risks to win a football game. The same goes for the offensive line, as they may try to tense up as well. Everything changes in a playoff game, mistakes hurt you more, scores don't mean as much, and all the fans are putting that much more into their cheering. Flacco and most of the offensive line players have never been in the NFL playoffs, so they need to be ready for this kind of game. As we saw yesterday, Matt Ryan and the Falcons fell even when they were the favorite against the Cardinals, the Ravens hope Flacco is not the same way.

--Does the defense have enough to win?
The defensive unit was been through a lot up to this point. They have played every week since the shortened bye week during Week 2. Injuries have racked up in the secondary including two starters, Chris McAlister and Dawan Landry going on injured reserve early in the year. And with all the talk of the success of Joe Flacco, the defense has been winning the games, as is tradition with Ravens football. Harbaugh said earlier last week that the Ravens are not tired, but it is hard to tell in the Ravens need a break or not. Not to mention, Rex Ryan has been talking with other teams about possible head coaching jobs, and even though his main focus is on the Ravens, the other teams will get mentioned in the media. The saying goes, defense wins championships, and for the Ravens, that needs to be true.

--Will Willis McGahee's comments hurt the team?
Earlier in the week, McGahee came out and said that he was not happy with his performance this season, blaming a lot of it on the coaching philosophy and his injuries. This was very similar to what he did in Buffalo, and the Bills felt the need to trade him away after such comments. While nowhere near as extreme, it is easy to have comments like these cause problems in the locker room. The timing could not be worse, but Harbaugh's way with the team has made the Ravens more disciplined off the field, but the Ravens are hoping McGahee doesn't have this in his mind during the game.

Breaking down the matchups:
Ravens offense vs. Dolphins defense
The Ravens only have two receivers that they have thrown the ball to, them being Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton, so look for a lot of two-tight end formations on passing plays and just one wide receiver on running plays. Marcus Smith, though the #3 wide receiver, has not caught a pass all season. The Dolphin defense has been solid for most of the season, 9th in the NFL in points allowed. Joey Porter ended the season with 17.5 sacks, and the Ravens will be keeping their eyes on him. On the running game, LeRon McClain will likely lead the way on the running game as he had since Ray Rice's injury. The Ravens will probably play a very conservative offense and limit the hard situations for Flacco.

Ravens defense vs. Dolphins offense
Chad Pennington has found new life with the Miami Dolphins and has become a solid passer with a 97.4 quarterback rating this season (to compare, MVP Peyton Manning's was 95.0). The banged up Ravens secondary will be tested all game, as the rushing attack has proven not very effective against the Ravens front seven. Ed Reed has been a monster lately, but with only a few corner able to play, it will need to be Samari Rolle and Frank Walker that step up big today. The Ravens defense is top-3 in yards and points allowed, and as mentioned before, this is where they must win. Look for Miami to try the "Wildcat" but more depend on the air attack to win.

Coaching and Intangibles
Two rookie head coaches, both in their first playoff appearance. Miami has the home-field, and the city is excited especially after last season's disaster, so the crowd will be loud and vibrant. Tony Sparano pulls out all the stops and will have his team ready for the game. On the Ravens side, John Harbaugh and Cam Cameron will take this very seriously. Cameron is going for his second win in Dolphin Stadium as a Ravens coordinator, which would be double the number of wins he had as the Dolphins head coach. With two rookie head coaches in their first playoff game, this could be a matter of who does not tense up.

Although this will not be a lopsided game, the Ravens seem to be on a roll right now, but so are the Dolphins after their win against the Jets. The Ravens despite being the visiting team are 3-point favorites, and the Ravens normally do not do well with expectations. When it comes down to it however, I feel the Ravens defense will win this game for Baltimore in a low scoring affair.

The nod goes to the Ravens, 20-13.

(Photo credits: Baltimore Sun)

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