For two teams that absolutely had to win their last games in the regular season to make the playoffs, the Miami Dolphins and the Baltimore Ravens sure didn't start off performing like they deserved to be there.
At least not offensively. The 27-9 final score was more attributed to good defense by the Ravens than to any significant offensive effort.
Chad Pennington and Joe Flacco were both anemic in the first half—Pennington eked out 77 yards on 7-of-12 attempts and threw two horrible-looking picks.
Flacco wasn't much better, going 7-for-15 for 121 yards.
Neither one found the opponent's end zone.
Had it not been for a 64-yard interception return by Ed Reed on Pennington's second pick, the teams would have gone into the halftime break with a baseball-esque 6-3 score.
The running game for both teams was just as deplorable as the passing game. Between the two teams, eight players ran the ball for a dismal grand total of 79 yards.
Miami had one chance early in the game, reaching the Baltimore one-yard line in the first quarter. But the offense sputtered like a engine with bad spark plugs, and they settled for a field goal to take a 3-0 lead.
Baltimore got as close as the Miami four-yard line before losing a yard and turning it over the Matt Stover to tie the score at 3-3.
Pennington's second interception came with 2:51 left in the second quarter, when Ted Ginn tripped over his shadow on a deep route. Ed Reed grabbed the floater, and with better blocking from his defense than the offense was delivering for Flacco, he returned the ball 64 yards for the only touchdown of the first half.
The rookie sensation and the "Savior of the South" had a lot to account for going into the second half.
Pennington came right out in the second half and threw his third interception into triple coverage.
So much for halftime adjustments.
Finally, Baltimore started to roll offensively. With 7:41 left in the third period, Le'Ron McClain punched into the end zone on a eight yard run up the gut, and the Ravens were up by 17.
A shot of Parcells watching from the box indicated just how frustrated the Dolphins were. The Tuna looked none too happy with Miami's performance, throwing his glasses case down in disgust after the Ravens scored.
Pennington appeared to have gotten word, as he went 8-for-8, driving the Dolphins down inside the Baltimore 20. But Reed stepped in again, getting his second interception of Pennington, and the fourth on the day for the Ravens.
With a comfortable 17-point lead going into the fourth quarter, all Baltimore had to do was protect the ball and continue their defensive stand to move to the next round.
Oops. they forgot that you can't knock the receiver down before he catches the ball. Two huge pass interference calls allowed Miami to move to the 5-yard line, and Ronnie Brown made a circus catch in the end zone on 2nd-and-2.
Suddenly, the Dolphins looked like they had some life left. The extra point was blocked, but the Dolphins had narrowed the gap to 20-9. A big deficit, but doable if they could just get the offense in high gear.
First, they had to stop the Ravens offense.
They did just that, plastering Placco twice on Baltimore's next possession, holding them to three-and-out to get the ball back and let Pennington do his thing.
Instead of playing straight-up football, though, the Dolphins decided to get cute. Down near field goal range, Pennington attempted a double reverse with Ted Ginn. Ray Lewis was there before the handoff, and Ginn missed the exchange, barely falling on the ball after a loss of 19 yards.
That was the end of the Dolphin's playoff run. Five plays into the Ravens' next drive, Willis McGahee scampered for 48 yards to the Miami four, and Flacco put a dagger in the Dolphins' heart with a five-yard sneak to give the Ravens to a 27-9 lead.
Baltimore's defense made sure to show Miami that the game was over, putting Pennington on his back one last time and stopping the Dolphins on 4th-and-10 in their own territory.
The Ravens defense was solid as usual. Four interceptions, two sacks, and a fumble recovery. Multiple hurries. All in a day's work for one of the NFL's top defensive units.
Once again, though, the often-unheralded punters took center stage for a while, with both Miami's Brandon Fields and Baltimore's Sam Koch pinning their opponents inside the 20-yard line at least once each.
Baltimore travels next to Tennessee, where the Titans have had a week to rest and get Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch ready to take the field.
With a well-rested opponent and a hostile crowd, Baltimore needs to pull the chinstraps tight, because this one could get brutal.
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