Do your best to stack the box on obvious running downs. Force the rookie QB – starting his first playoff game on the road, no less – to beat you downfield. It puts a TON of pressure on your relatively young secondary; nevertheless, you have to like your odds more in that scenario.
Do take advantage of a quarterback with legit playoff experience. Pennington has been the gross underdog – home or away – and guided past (Jet) teams to playoff victories against "superior teams and QBs". Don’t be so casual to forget that he’s made the big throws – for better or worse – in scenarios much rougher than at home in Miami this weekend.
Don’t allow Derrick Mason to roam free in the middle of the field. He’s the sneakiest player at that position in the NFL. Far too often he becomes discarded or totally forgotten about, especially in the slot. He’ll take a crushing hit or too as well, whether for 15 yards or 1 ½ on the reception.
Don’t allow the pick-six to burn you. It’s not impossible to plan against this. Open up the playbook – just a bit – but don’t allow their talented secondary to bite on routes. Not to mention, their LBs (as Terrell Suggs proved in Week 7) will gobble up errand balls. Anything out of the zone is property of Ed Reed. Ball security from the QB must be a QB's #1 priority when you see the Ravens on the opposing sideline.
Don’t completely abandon the benefits of the Wildcat Formation. This Ravens team is not a prolific offense (obviously). If it struggles to gain first downs early, try your best to step on their throats. Put the vice on Joe Flacco with Joey Porter barking in his ear every time he hits the corner to sack the CAA-product.
Baltimore Do’s and Don’t’s:
Do your best to platoon McClain and McGahee from start to finish. Why not ride both horses down the stretch, regardless of the score differential. Joe Flacco is still a rookie and there remains a significant lack of chemistry between him and his talented TE Todd Heap.
Do slip in a trick play or two for the uber-talented Mark Clayton. He’s fast and an ever-emerging athlete in the Raven offense. The Miami defenders just faced a QB (last week) with a bum shoulder who underthrew everything. Now it’s time to air out a ball or two downfield early; especially if 1-on-1 coverage is isolated on corner/stop-and-go routes.
Don’t think it's automatic that your team can win without scoring above 20 points. It’s easy to ride your defense while grinding the ball playing field position. While the Dolphin offense and special teams won’t break the bank too often; they do force turnovers. Keep that in mind when you have a rookie QB taking snaps in the 4th quarter of a game much closer than your confident defense might've expected.
Don’t expect the Dolphins to be the least bit intimidated, especially at home. This should go without saying; however, playing with house money – even at home – allows teams to act like snakes lurking in the grass. Bad symbolism, but it still rings true. The Wildcat isn't going anywhere this weekend.
Don’t forget Cam Cameron was the head coach at Miami last season, for better or worse. It’s an X-factor that might go under the rug, yet might play more of a factor than expected. Not to mention, Miami did beat a very different Baltimore (offense) last season when they were winless sans-Pennington. I’m just sayin’…
When Miami has the ball…
RB Ronnie Brown vs. LB Ray Lewis
Whether or not the Wildcat formation can work against such a disciplined defense – who has seen it before mind you – is irrelevant. Seriously. What matters is how much confidence the Dolphin coaching staff has in attempting (throughout the game) to see if Ronnie Brown is or isn’t able to take the direct snap and make a play…even if it’s a simple pitch to a dive play for Ricky. Whether it be an end-around to Ginn, a fleaflicker back to Pennington, or potentially a throw from Brown in the redzone, finding holes against this one-of-a-king speedy yet savvy defense may give the Dolphins the big play or two they need to win.
When Baltimore has the ball…
FB Le’Ron McClain vs. LB Channing Crowder
I was one of those who questioned Channing Crowder’s ability to play linebacker – especially inside the 3-4 alignment – in the NFL. While he’s far from a Pro Bowler, his athleticism and tenacity (just ask Matt Light) is ever-improving. McClain, who you’ll see just as often as the primary RB, will have a size/strength vs. speed/agility matchup most FBs either dread or salivate over.
Poise and Patience
You’d think the QB advantage would immediately go to Chad Pennington; yet, I’m not so sure. Flacco seems to play with a (quiet) chip on his shoulder and has arguably the more talented set of wideouts and skilled offensive players. It’ll be interesting to see how Pennington performs in the playoffs, especially in the 1st half when previous (Jet) experiences have been far more positive than his second halves. Pennington won't be nervous at all, yet arm strength may become a factor against a blitzing onslaught from the Ravens D and their coordinator Rex Ryan.
Matt Stover was arguably the “offensive” MVP of the 2000 Super Bowl season for the Ravens. On the other hand, Miami has an unknown kicker (Carpenter) fresh off an impressive weekend in the Meadowlands; however they also have a return unit - in all major categories - ranked in the bottom 5 in the entire NFL. Protecting your half of the field is vital to both teams, who don’t exactly gameplan on lighting the scoreboard up.
Just when you thought I wouldn’t mention “him”…I will. Tony Sporano (gotcha!) is a first-year coach who has seen his fair share of recent playoff disappointments in Dallas. Nevertheless, he also has to realize the tremendous opportunity he has in front of him. Good coaches don’t take these games lightly. We might call it, "playing with house money", but good coaches know it just takes one win to survive and move on. Meanwhile, John Harbaugh has two savvy coordinators in his back pocket and (defensive) players who often play like they don’t need coaching. It’s almost poetic that both these two teams – both buried in last place last season – would be so fortunate to be lifted up by two talented first-year coaches.
Final Score Prediction
Baltimore wins 23-16