Joe Flacco might be a rookie from tiny Delaware, but he has performed at a big-time level for most of the season. He has not shown any signs of being worn down, physically or mentally, as evidenced by his dominant showing against Jacksonville. He throws the ball well and consistently makes good decisions.
The Ravens have the NFL's fourth-ranked rushing attack because they are committed to pounding the ball. Le'Ron McClain is their hammer, and has been consistently effective during the second half of the season. Willis McGahee is inconsistent, but capable of impact runs. And Ray Rice is finally healthy, giving Baltimore plenty of options.
This team only has one true receiving threat, Derrick Mason, who has been banged up lately. Opponents are well aware of that, yet Mason still managed to rank 10th in the AFC with 80 receptions. Mark Clayton is solid, but neither he nor TE Todd Heap come near Mason's numbers. Heap, however, does provide the young Flacco a safety valve.
Center Jason Brown and guards Ben Grubbs and Chris Chester are capable of overpowering most opponents on running plays. Offensive tackles Jared Gaither and Willie Anderson also provide considerable muscle at the point of attack. The pass protection has been solid as opposing defenses sacked Flacco just 30 times.
The strength of the NFL's third-best run-stuffing defense begins with nose tackle Haloti Ngata, who dominates in the middle. His ability to consistently tie up blockers gives LB Ray Lewis plenty of room to operate and also allows ends Marques Douglas and Trevor Pryce, both of whom are performing well, to make plays.
This unit is the main reason defensive coordinator Rex Ryan has no creative limits to his scheming. It combines speed, athleticism, strength and savvy. Ray Lewis is back to his monster form, always within striking range of the ball. Bart Scott is another superb playmaker, while Terrell Suggs is a pass-rushing terror.
Free safety Ed Reed is arguably the top defensive player in the NFL, consistently making big plays in coverage (he had a league-best nine interceptions) and run support. Fortunately for the Ravens, he's the one member of this unit healthy enough to start all season. Although injuries haven't helped, the rest of the group is mostly ordinary.
Matt Stover is one of the league's most dependable kickers, although he doesn't have a strong leg. The coverage units are good, which is to be expected when your head coach formerly guided special teams. Jim Leonhard is solid on punt returns, but the Ravens are next-to-last in the NFL returning kickoffs.
John Harbaugh has done a superb job of turning around a team that had lost its edge. His no-nonsense approach is what the players needed to regain their focus. He gave Flacco a chance, and then, along with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, gave him the right scheme to succeed. Ryan is a defensive mastermind.
Ordinarily, it would be easy to assume that a team with a rookie QB and head coach would have a hard time winning a playoff game on the road. But Flacco doesn't play like a rookie and Harbaugh doesn't coach like one. Flacco also has a great deal of support from his running game. The Ravens' defense will also do its part to relieve the pressure of the quarterback's first playoff game.
Chad Pennington keyed the remarkable turnaround from 1-15 to 11-5. He got his revenge against his former team, the Jets, to win the AFC East. Now, he's ready to take his career revival to another level. His ultra-efficient approach is more appreciated in an offense that emphasizes safe passing and minimal turnovers.
Ronnie Brown came back from a major knee injury to make the Pro Bowl. Although the Dolphins have resorted to the gimmickry of the "Wildcat" formation (with direct snaps to Brown) to get their ground game in gear, Brown is talented enough to excel in any scheme. Ricky Williams still runs well in a complementary role.
After losing one go-to receiver, Greg Camarillo to a season-ending knee injury, the Dolphins appear to have found another in rookie Davone Bess, who has 35 receptions over the last six games. Ted Ginn Jr. has game-breaking talent, but sorely lacks consistency. Tight end Anthony Fasano is Pennington's favorite target in the red zone.
No. 1 overall pick Jake Long has performed well at left tackle, but there's instability elsewhere. Multiple players -- including inconsistent center Samson Satele -- have been used in place of high-effort, but ordinary RG Ikechuku Ndukwe. LG Justin Smiley, the team's most experienced lineman, suffered a season-ending broken leg.
This is a fairly mediocre bunch that doesn't get much pressure on the quarterback or do a whole lot to stop the run. The greatest impact has come from rookie end Phillip Merling, who is active and can make plays. His interception return for a touchdown against the Jets helped turn the game in the Dolphins' favor.
Along with Pennington, Joey Porter also is enjoying a career revival. He became a dominant pass rusher (second in the NFL with 17.5 sacks) in Paul Pasqualoni's 3-4 scheme. Charlie Anderson has emerged as a playmaker from the other side and Matt Roth also makes his presence felt. Channing Crowder and Akin Ayodele are solid inside.
Cornerback Will Allen does a good job in coverage. Andre' Goodman, who has shown steady improvement since early in the year, is solid at the other corner spot. Like Goodman, safeties Yeremiah Bell and Renaldo Hill have seemingly done enough with their play to convince the Dolphins to keep them off the free-agent market.
Rookie place-kicker Dan Carpenter has been steady, but not spectacular, and distance is not his strength. After some disastrous performances early in the season, the Dolphins have shown improvement in their kick coverage. Bess is dangerous returning punts. However, Miami's kickoff returns are among the league's worst.
Tony Sparano has been nothing short of a miracle-worker in his rookie season. He instilled a new attitude by making players more accountable and preaching the importance of playing smart and avoiding mistakes. With an overhauled roster put together by Bill Parcells and Jeff Ireland, Sparano and his staff put everyone in the best position to succeed.
It has been an amazing ride with so many of Parcells' and Ireland's pieces coming together perfectly, the most critical of which was Pennington's arrival. But all good things come to an end, and, given an opponent that already showed its vast superiority when the teams met in October, midnight is fast approaching for this magical season.