DEFENSE SHOULD DOMINATE

What better way to start a Super Bowl quest than opening the playoffs at home vs. last year's Super Bowl champion?<P>That is what the Dolphins face this weekend in the AFC wild-card round when the Baltimore Ravens come to Pro Player Stadium Sunday afternoon at 4:05 p.m.

The Ravens earned the last playoff spot last Monday night when they beat the Minnesota Vikings, 19-3, in a very unimpressive showing.

But Baltimore still enters the postseason with as much confidence as a wild card team can have, knowing that it entered last year's playoffs as a wild card team as well and took out three quality teams, two on the road, to reach the Super Bowl.

Similarly, Miami enters with its own swagger, knowing that it has won five of its last seven games, including the drubbing handed out to Buffalo last week when Miami rushed for an incredible 202 yards.

What follows is a preview of Sunday's AFC playoff game.

WHO: Miami Dolphins (11-5) vs. Baltimore Ravens (10-6)

WHERE: Pro Player Stadium; Miami, Fla.

KICKOFF TIME: 4:05 p.m. ET

TELEVISION: CBS (blacked out locally)

LINE: Miami by 2 1/2

COACHES: Baltimore — Brian Billick (3rd year with Baltimore); Miami — Dave Wannstedt (2nd year with Miami)

SERIES RECORD: The Dolphins hold the edge here, winning the only two meetings, 24-13 in 1997 and 19-6 last year.

LAST MEETING: Miami completely outplayed the eventual champs in last year's meeting at Pro Player on a night when Dan Marino was honored at halftime. Lamar Smith scored twice and the defense was all over the Ravens, recording six sacks and an interception in the 19-6 victory.

WHAT'S NEXT: The winner of this game will travel to Pittsburgh next Sunday at 12:30 p.m. if Oakland beat the New York Jets Saturday night; if the Jets win at Oakland, then the Baltimore-Miami winner will play at New England next Saturday at 8 p.m.

INJURIES: Dolphins — WR Chris Chambers (ankle), WR Oronde Gadsden (hamstring), FB Rob Konrad (ribs), LB Zach Thomas (neck and shoulder), S Shawn Wooden (ankles) are questionable; QB Jay Fiedler (elbow), DT Jermaine Haley (calf), WR James McKnight (ankle), C Tim Ruddy (knee), LB Twan Russell (finger), RB Lamar Smith (ankle), CB Patrick Surtain (finger), DE Jason Taylor (shoulder) are probable.

Baltimore — LB Shannon Taylor (shoulder) is out; CB James Trapp (groin) is doubtful; DE Rob Burnett (calf), WR Patrick Johnson (ankle) are questionable; G Edwin Mulitalo (calf), RB Terry Allen (chest), TE Shannon Sharpe (knee), DT Larry Webster (ankle), OL Sammy Williams (back) are probable.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

Dolphins linebackers vs Ravens TE Shannon Sharpe — Sharpe leads the NFL record books for most receptions by a tight end, a record he broke this year in what has been another Pro Bowl season for him. Zach Thomas is hurting, Morlon Greenwood is a rookie and Scott Galyon hasn't seen a lot of action this season. These three must find a way to contain the big-play tight end.

Dolphins punt coverage vs. Ravens return man Jermaine Lewis — The Dolphins had the No. 1 punt return defense in the NFL this year, giving up an average of 4.5 yards per return. They will need a similar effort against Pro Bowler Lewis, who will be looking to break the game open with a big return.

Dolphins wide receivers vs Ravens secondary — The Ravens defense will simply not allow the running game to get going and the ailing Dolphins wideouts must produce. Hopefully, Chambers, McKnight and Gadsden will be healthy enough to do what they've done all season.

WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL: In what will end up being a defensive, frustrating game to watch for most people, the offense will struggle a bit against Baltimore's vaunted defense. Don't expect the running game to be nearly as successful as it was last week against Buffalo, meaning if the Dolphins want to put points on the board it will have to come through the air. The Dolphins have to attack this defense with the deep ball.

WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL: Similar to the Dolphins, the Ravens will probably struggle to get their running game going. The loss of RB Jamal Lewis before the season opened produced a dramatic drop-off in production from that aspect of their offense. Look for the Ravens to throw early and often to Shannon Sharpe, one of the main playmakers on this offense. Baltimore will also look to wideouts Qadry Ismail and Travis Taylor, but don't expect much success with Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain blanketing them all afternoon.

BOTTOM LINE: Dave Wannstedt likes to run and play solid defense, but his running game has been inconsistent throughout the season. Billick also would love to run and turn his ferocious defense loose, but the Ravens have also had trouble on the ground. Both teams have struggled with turnovers, especially from the quarterback position. The teams' philosophy, talent, speed and mistakes are remarkably similar. So where does that leave us? Chances are, it'll come down to one mistake, one big play or one costly penalty to produce the winner of this one.


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