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Dolphins look to their future, but they'll face their past in the playoffs

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Modest time is required to see coach Tony Sparano's impact in the Miami Dolphins' move from pebble to mountain.

Somebody brazenly asked Sparano about hosting Baltimore in a Wild-Card playoff matchup next weekend, reminding him the Dolphins already have lost to the Ravens this season.

"Yeah," he said Sunday. "The Ravens beat us the first time. But the Jets also beat us the first time."

Got it, coach.

Sparano, this tiger of a coach, wants everyone to know that old is old and new is new, that the Dolphins he has molded into AFC East champions reached the postseason by applying laser-like focus on what lurks ahead.

Who among the Dolphins wanted to look backward? Back to their 1-15 season, a one-hit calamity for first-time NFL head coach Cam Cameron. He was fired.

"It cost us $27 million to fire those coaches," Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga said. "And even though we brought in Bill Parcells to run it, though coach Sparano showed us early he was a good fit, I thought, at best, we'd be 8-8. I was hoping for that."

Huizenga got more. All of the Dolphins did. Their 24-17 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday in the Meadowlands earned Miami its first division title since 2000. The 13th division championship in franchise history. An NFL-record-tying 10-game improvement from 1-15 to 11-5. An NFL record for the fewest turnovers in a 16-game season with 13.

And a home playoff game next Sunday against Baltimore.

Against Cam Cameron.

He's the Ravens' offensive coordinator now and already stuck it to the Dolphins in a 27-13 Ravens victory on Oct. 19 in Miami. Baltimore rookie QB Joe Flacco offered one of his best showings in that game (17-of-23 passing for 232 yards and one touchdown), linebacker Terrell Suggs returned an interception for a score, and the Ravens produced the game's top receiver (Derrick Mason) and rusher (Willis McGahee).

"We're a different team now," Dolphins wide receiver Tedd Ginn Jr. said. "Things are different now. I know I was coach Cameron's first draft pick. But the business of football means that sometimes you just have to go with decisions that are made. I saw him before the game when we played them last time. He said hello and kept moving. I'm sure he had a lot on his mind."

In that first meeting, Cameron was trying to help push Baltimore toward a playoff run. He did. Miami had lost by one point at Houston, then Cameron and the Ravens plucked the Dolphins. Miami was a 2-4 team. Then it rose, finishing 9-1 in its final 10 games, winning the last five.

It was the kind of dream season that Cameron would have loved in his first year in Miami -- which turned out to be his only year in Miami.

"I wasn't here," said Dolphins running back Ricky Williams, who played in just one game under Cameron because of a suspension and a chest injury, "but the guys who were say that they really didn't listen to him (Cameron) or respect him much. They didn't think he knew how to, as a head coach, handle pro players."

Sparano found ways to change the climate and culture of the Dolphins. Part of his focus was attention to detail and clean, mistake-free football.

"He showed you why you lose, he showed you how you win," Dolphins safety Yeremiah Bell said. "He was in the weight room while the team was lifting. He was preaching to you in the hallways. Every single day, he was talking about why you lose and what it takes to win. And the team bought it. And it took off."

Rookie offensive tackle Jake Long was paying attention.

"You could tell he had a plan and had painted a picture," Long said of Sparano. "He had a fire about it. He always told us we could get here. He might have been the only one who believed it from Day 1. He shows you exactly what you did wrong, exactly what you did right. He made us believers."

Now here come the Ravens.

It's an enticing matchup, a Baltimore defense that forces mistakes with pressure and painful hits against a Miami offense that protects the football as if it's made of china. What the Ravens thrive on, the Dolphins simply don't do.

Give the ball away. Give games away.

These Dolphins enter the playoffs at plus-17 in turnover differential. Miami is only the seventh team in NFL history to average fewer than one turnover per game in a season.

And quarterback Chad Pennington -- dumped by the Jets in favor of Brett Favre but who gained an ounce of redemption in ruining his former team's season -- is among the most accurate passers in league history. He threw only seven interceptions all season, compared to Favre's 22. Pennington's next obstacle, Flacco, has thrown 12 interceptions.

Ginn saw that "look" in Pennington's eyes in last week's practices.

"He didn't say much about coming back here, about what the Jets did to him and about playing them in such a big game," Ginn said. "But I could see that look in his eyes. It was real, and it was serious."

Sparano complimented his quarterback on his extra preparation on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. So Pennington received a game ball Sunday and secured his place as a resolute leader among the Dolphins. How he handles the heat that Baltimore's defense uniquely brings will help decide if Miami can continue its roll.

"We've been built not to beat ourselves, to eliminate penalties, and we're pretty adamant about it, practice it every day, preach it," Sparano said. "It's part of the character and identity of our team."

It has served them well.

"Cameron had us pretty much figured out when we played them last time," Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter said. "That isn't a factor this time because having played them, we'll have them figured out. We're ready."

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