Ravens are stingy on defense, but Dolphins are stingy with the ball

Using a hard-nosed style and a no-nonsense approach, rookie head coaches Tony Sparano and John Harbaugh did what some people believed was impossible -- push their teams to the playoffs. On Sunday, their teams will meet in Miami.

Sparano's Miami Dolphins tied the 1999 Indianapolis Colts for the greatest one-season turnaround in NFL history, going from 1-15 to 11-5. Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens handed the ball to Joe Flacco, a rookie quarterback from a Football Championship Subdivision school, and also found a way to win 11 games.

The Dolphins and Ravens met in Week 7 in Miami, and Baltimore won 27-13. The Ravens had four scoring drives of nine plays or more in that game, resulting in two touchdowns and two field goals. Miami can't afford to let Baltimore control the clock again. And the Ravens must block Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter, who sacked Flacco twice and hit him twice more.

Carucci's take

NFL.com senior columnist Vic Carucci breaks down Sunday's Ravens- Dolphins playoff game in Miami position-by-position and picks his key matchups to watch. Read story ...

When the Ravens have the ball

Flacco has thrown 10 touchdown passes and just five interceptions on the road this season, and his team is 5-3 away from Baltimore. Flacco is very cool under pressure, and his feet will bail him out in critical situations. But the Dolphins defense has become a ball-hawking group in the last five games with 10 interceptions, so Flacco needs to be careful.

Like the Dolphins, the Ravens want to run the ball all day. They're the No. 4 rushing team in the league with 148.5 yards per game and will expect well over 100 against a Miami defense that gives up 101.2 on average. Look for the Ravens to use their special package in which they line up the right offensive tackle next to the left tackle and have fullbacks Lorenzo Neal and Le'Ron McClain in the backfield. That's 515 pounds of running backs behind two tackles, and it's power football that rivals the Dolphins' Wildcat package when it comes to establishing the run.

On paper, the Ravens' 28th-ranked pass offense against the Dolphins' 25th-ranked pass defense doesn't sound like a big deal, but Flacco and wide receiver Derrick Mason have made some big plays in recent weeks. Still, Flacco has only one touchdown pass in his last three games, and he has been sacked nine times. When Porter brings pressure, he'll need help from someone else because Baltimore will have a running back dedicated to helping the offensive lineman who draws the duty of blocking the Pro Bowl linebacker.

When the Dolphins have the ball

Miami wants to run the ball, throw play-action passes and not commit turnovers. The Dolphins are the NFL's best at protecting the ball, having tied the NFL record for the fewest giveaways in a 16-game season with 13, but the Ravens have ball-hawking safety Ed Reed, who intercepted nine passes this season and had a 10th -- against Miami QB Chad Pennington -- nullified by a penalty. Baltimore LB Terrell Suggs also had a 44-yard interception return for a touchdown in that Week 7 meeting with Miami, so Pennington must be careful with the ball this time.

The Dolphins' running game is built around Ronnie Brown (916 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Ricky Williams (659 yards, four touchdowns). Sometimes they're in a conventional offense, and occasionally they're in the Wildcat package in which the running back takes the snap. The last time these teams met, the Ravens' third-ranked run defense held Brown and Williams to a combined 2.5 yards per carry.

For the Dolphins to score enough points to win this game, Pennington needs to make plays -- though Greg Camarillo, his top receiver from the first game, is on injured reserve. Therefore, youngsters Davone Bess and Ted Ginn Jr. must find a way to beat the Ravens' second-ranked pass defense. Look for some gimmick throws and a few pass plays out of the Wildcat formation in an attempt to loosen up Baltimore's defense.

The last time they played, the Dolphins had 15 first downs via the pass. They probably need more this time, and they must throw the ball down the field. Baltimore's stout defense held seven teams to 10 points or less this season.

The bottom line

If the game is close in the fourth quarter, don't look for much scoring: The Ravens have given up the fewest fourth-quarter points (60) in the NFL, and the Dolphins are right behind them (62). However, Baltimore is more battle-tested because it played seven games against playoff teams, compared to Miami's three. I'll take the Ravens in this game by no more than a field goal, and neither team will score over 21 points.

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