Today’s NFL Playoffs: Ravens at Dolphins
MIAMI ó Six weeks into the season, the Miami Dolphins still looked a lot like a punch line.
They were 2-4, last in the AFC East and licking their wounds after being manhandled by the Baltimore Ravens. That defeat made it 22 losses in 25 games, and as coach Tony Sparano bemoaned deficiencies in blocking and tackling, it seemed the rebuilding project under the new Bill Parcells regime might take several seasons.
Now, Miami is the NFL’s most improbable playoff entrant and three wins from the Super Bowl. With a rookie coach, a castoff quarterback and a roster low on star power, the Dolphins (11-5) have won nine of their past 10 games to claim the AFC East title and make the postseason for the first time since 2001.
Their reward in the first round today: another crack at Baltimore.
This is a rematch in more ways than one, because the Ravens (11-5) are making their third trip to Miami in 13 months. The Dolphins earned their only victory of 2007 by beating Baltimore 22-16 in overtime; the Ravens exacted revenge by winning 27-13 on Oct. 19.
Everyone agrees the Dolphins have improved greatly in the past 21/2 months. Blocking and tackling are no longer problems, the offense has become a model of efficiency and the defense can be stingy for long stretches.
Baltimore is better, too. Starting with the victory at Miami, the Ravens have won nine of their past 11 games.
“Everybody talks about the Dolphins being on this ride,” Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis says. “We don’t care about the Dolphins’ ride. We’re on our own ride.”
At the wheel for the Ravens is rookie Joe Flacco, who in the past 11 games has thrown only five interceptions with 13 touchdown passes.
“Where they’ve grown the most is at the quarterback position,” Sparano says. “He has total command of the entire playbook. He can keep the play alive, kind of Tony Romo-like. I just see a completely different kid back there right now from the first time we played.”
To the astonishment of Miami fans, Flacco has apparently benefited from the tutelage of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who went 1-15 in his only season as Dolphins head coach last year.
The Ravens gave an emotional Cameron the game ball after their October victory in Miami as Baltimore mounted four long scoring drives.