The Miami Dolphins’ fairy tale turnaround of a season is expected to end at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in the first round of the NFL playoffs this weekend.
After winning only one game last season the Dolphins won 11 this year, matching the 1999 Indianapolis Colts for the biggest one-year improvement.
Bill Parcells took over the Dolphins, hired Tony Sparano as the coach and was lucky to acquire Chad Pennington to play quarterback when the New York Jets released him after trading for Brett Favre.
Miami also benefited from New England’s problems after Tom Brady’s injury and from some imagination (the “Wildcat” offense) to win the AFC East division and reach the playoffs after a seven-year drought, the longest in team history.
The Ravens, as usual, are staunch on defense. They also had stout performances from rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and second-year running back Le’Ron McClain. That made them an offensive threat for one of the first times since they moved to Baltimore in 1995, and they finished by winning nine of their last 11 games.
Like other visiting teams in this wild-card round, the Ravens are favored, perhaps because the Dolphins seem to be one of those “just glad to be here” teams. Baltimore won 27-13 in Miami in the regular season with Flacco’s best game and, like Indianapolis, is a wild-card team that could be a threat to win it all.
Indianapolis meets the San Diego Chargers today, along with the Arizona Cardinals against the Atlanta Falcons. Tomorrow, it’s Miami-Baltimore and the Minnesota Vikings against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Colts and Chargers are on impressive rolls.
The Colts won nine straight after starting 3-4, primarily because quarterback Peyton Manning recovered from the preseason knee problems that hindered him well into the regular season. But San Diego, 4-8 at one point, won its last four to catch Denver in the AFC West and is playing the way it was expected to when it began the season as one of the favorites in the conference.
The Colts have traditionally had trouble with the Chargers, who last season knocked them out of the playoffs with a 28-24 win. The Colts won this year in San Diego 23-20 on a last-play, 51-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri — and that was before the Chargers were playing well.
The problem for the Colts is that they could say the same thing about the Chargers.
Few people expected Atlanta and Arizona to be in the playoffs.
The Cardinals, who finished by losing four of their last six and allowing an average of more than 40 points in those games, benefited from playing in the weak NFC West, where they were 6-0. So they received their first playoff home game since 1947, when they won the NFL title as the Chicago Cardinals.
The one advantage Arizona has is experience at quarterback, where 37-year-old Kurt Warner is a two-time MVP who has played in two Super Bowls, winning in 2000 with St Louis. His counterpart is Matt Ryan, who despite being voted AP offensive rookie of the year could have playoff jitters.
Atlanta’s Michael Turner has eight touchdowns rushing in the last three games and teammate Jerious Norwood led the NFL with an average of 5.6 yards per carry.
The Philadelphia Eagles secured a playoff berth last week by embarrassing Dallas 44-6 after Tampa Bay and Chicago lost to give them a shot. This is a team that seemed out of it after being tied by lowly Cincinnati, then getting routed in Baltimore in a game in which coach Andy Reid sidelined quarterback Donovan McNabb at halftime.