Dismal end to a dream season for Comeback Player of the Year

MIAMI -- Even in the end, with his jersey covered in dirt and his skin pierced with bruises, Chad Pennington had to smile.

The improbable comeback season for the Miami Dolphins and their resurgent quarterback came to an abrupt close Sunday, losing 27-9 to the Baltimore Ravens in their AFC wild-card playoff game.

Playing in his first game since being awarded The Associated Press 2008 NFL Comeback Player of the Year, Pennington had four interceptions against the Ravens after only having seven all season, ending one of the greatest one-year turnarounds in NFL history.

"It's been magical," Pennington said. "That's why it hurts even worse."

Pennington set a team record with his 67.4 completion percentage and he posted a 97.4 quarterback rating. But Sunday, his rating was a dismal 53.7.

With the Dolphins trailing 20-3, Pennington tried to rally them with a 58-yard drive to the 13 before Ed Reed intercepted him for the second time late in the third quarter. Reed also made an over-the-shoulder interception in the second quarter after receiver Ted Ginn Jr. tripped, and Reed reversed field and sprinted for a touchdown.

Pennington tried to make a tackle but was planted into the grass by Terrell Suggs at the 5-yard line, getting an all-too-close view of the Ravens' celebration.

"I certainly didn't expect for it to end this way," Pennington said.

For the Dolphins, Pennington's worst game of the season didn't erase all his other memories.

Teammates praised him for his leadership, calm presence in the huddle and efficient play. He threw for a career-high 3,653 yards with only seven interceptions during the regular season, directing an offense that totaled just 13 turnovers, an NFL record the Dolphins share with this season's New York Giants.

"I told Chad Pennington that he's my guy and that I believe in him," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. "I can't thank him enough for what he's done for us. The guy's a real trooper."

All this came after Pennington was benched by the New York Jets midway through the 2007 season as he struggled to overcome an ankle injury. The Jets then released him in August in favor of Brett Favre, who Pennington and the Dolphins defeated a week earlier to clinch the division.

"Pennington's been great all year. It just wasn't a good day," Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga said. "We really don't have anything to complain about. The guy's done a great job. It's been a heck of a year."

Pennington's four interceptions Sunday closed his remarkable season for the Dolphins (11-6), who won the AFC East after going 1-15 in 2007. The 10-game turnaround is tied with the 1999 Indianapolis Colts for the best in league history.

And the Dolphins give credit to Pennington for the resurgence.

"If it weren't for him, we wouldn't be where we are right now," Ginn said

Pennington spent a few extra moments sitting at his locker after the loss, peeling away tape on his equipment and thanking teammates for an incredible season.

He straightened his hair one last time, then put on his Dolphins cap, slowly savoring the last moments of a season he thought would never end.

"It's been a special year," Pennington said. "You wanted it to keep going. You wanted to keep it going and see how far you can take it."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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