Surprising teams on display in Ravens-Dolphins wild-card matchup

At the start of the season, the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens were two of the NFL's least likely teams to reach the playoffs. Led by unassuming quarterbacks, however, each team has made an impressive run to the postseason.

The Dolphins and Ravens meet on Sunday in an AFC Wild-Card Game, as Miami looks to avoid another postseason exit at the hands of Baltimore.

The Ravens are in the playoffs for the second time in three years, but they returned after going 5-11 in 2007. As remarkable as that turnaround is, however, it pales in comparison to the surprising success of the Dolphins.

Carucci's take 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 ...

A year after going 1-15, Miami won the AFC East for its first division title since 2000. The Dolphins, who were 0-13 in 2007 before beating Baltimore 22-16, won their final five games of 2008 to become just the second team in NFL history to post a 10-win improvement.

Miami's unlikely turnaround came after an overhaul in the offseason under the guidance of Bill Parcells, who was named executive vice president of football operations. Under new coach Tony Sparano, who took over for Cam Cameron -- now the offensive coordinator for the Ravens -- the Dolphins still got off to a rough start, losing four of their first six games, but after a 27-13 loss at home to the Ravens on Oct. 19, things rapidly began to improve.

"I don't think words can describe it," running back Ronnie Brown said after last Sunday's 24-17 win over the Jets. "Earlier in the season, we could only imagine being in this situation.

"It's a great accomplishment. With it comes more motivation to keep winning games."

Quarterback Chad Pennington deserves much of the credit for the turnaround, and on Wednesday he was named the AP's 2008 NFL Comeback Player of the Year -- the second time in three years he's received the award.

Pennington was 1-7 as a starter in 2007 with the Jets, who cut him when they acquired Brett Favre in the offseason. Pennington threw for 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions with the Dolphins, finishing with a career-high 3,653 yards.

"He's vital to this team, he really is," Sparano said. "With Chad coming in here and doing what he's done right now and bringing a bunch of people together, these young players, what he's brought to them from a leadership standpoint."

Pennington helped the Jets reach the playoffs in 2002, 2004 and 2006, and he's 2-3 as a starter in the postseason. The Dolphins have lost their last two playoff games, most recently to the Ravens in 2002, when they also went 11-5 during the regular season.

"Underdog, not, one way or the other, we kind of feel like we know where we stand," Sparano said. "What I mean by that is I think the more we keep doing what we're doing, the more credibility that we get with our opponents, but still I think people look at you and they're still not sure one way or the other, but we have every right to be where we are right now in this ballgame."

The Ravens also aren't likely to be seen as an underdog now that they've reached the playoffs. They won five of their final six games, clinching a playoff spot with a 27-7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars last Sunday.

AFC wild-card breakdown

The AFC playoff field, and perhaps those teams in the NFC playoff field as well, should be wary of the playoff-tested Colts, a team very capable of making the long march to Super Bowl XLIII, writes Vic Carucci.

Like the Dolphins, the Ravens' turnaround comes in part due to the success of their quarterback. Joe Flacco was the 18th overall pick in this year's draft out of the University of Delaware and originally expected to back up Kyle Boller. However, Boller was placed on injured reserve before the season due to a shoulder injury, pressing Flacco into the starting spot.

He responded like a seasoned veteran, completing 60 percent of his passes for 2,971 yards and 14 TDs with 12 interceptions.

"Joe has come a long way. It's like night and day," Boller said. "Seeing him now, he's ready for the playoffs."

Flacco threw seven of those interceptions in his first five games as the Ravens started 2-3, but he turned the corner in the win over Miami, and the rest of the Ravens have settled in.

"The Miami game was a turning point. We all bought into that brotherhood of fighting," offensive tackle Willie Anderson said. "Everything was against us."

Unlike Pennington, who has some postseason experience, Flacco's rookie status has the Ravens leaning one of the league's best defenses to help guide them in the playoffs. Baltimore, which was second in yards allowed (277.1) and third in scoring defense (15.3), held three of its final six opponents to 10 points or less.

As the six seed, Baltimore must play all of its playoff games on the road, but the Ravens have won five of their last six road games, outscoring opponents by an average of 12 points.

Baltimore has lost its last three playoff games since winning at Miami in the 2002 wild-card game.

"Our team's prepared for anything right now," said first-year coach John Harbaugh. "Our team feels very confident in any kind of circumstance or situation they would face.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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