Ravens pummel Dolphins, Reed steals the show

MIAMI -- As a child growing up in Louisiana dreaming of future football glory, Ed Reed used to practice making acrobatic catches over the shoulder like baseball legend Willie Mays. One time, though, Reed crashed into a mailbox and opened up a cut above his left eye.

The collision left him with a permanent scar and a reminder of the importance of remaining alert at all times.

There were no mailboxes or hardly any formidable obstacles for Reed and the Baltimore Ravens to avoid Sunday in a 27-9 AFC wild-card victory over the Miami Dolphins before 74,240 at Dolphin Stadium that marks the team's first playoff win since defeating Miami in the first round in January 2002.

Especially not with the star free safety revisiting his youth with an electrifying over-the-shoulder interception that he returned 64 yards by criss-crossing the field for a touchdown that seized the momentum for the Ravens in the second quarter and propelled them into a road divisional playoff Saturday against the AFC South champion Tennessee Titans.

Reed caught the football, darted toward the left sideline, dodged a Dolphin and cut back across the grain all the way back to the other side of the field before accelerating into the right corner of the end zone as defensive tackle Haloti Ngata delivered a crushing block on quarterback Chad Pennington's intended receiver, Ted Ginn Jr., and linebacker Terrell Suggs barreled over Pennington near the end zone. It was the longest postseason interception in franchise history, and Reed may have covered nearly 100 yards on the play.

"Like playing center field, but this is football right now, baby," said Reed, whose touchdown staked the Ravens to a 10-3 lead that they never relinquished. "Oh man, counting the zigzag? I'm not sure. It felt like the 200 in track. It took a while to catch my breath. I don't think I caught my breath until like the third quarter. It was fun."

It was the first of Reed's two interceptions as Baltimore (12-5) exploited Pennington for four interceptions and the Ravens improved to 9-0 when the Pro Bowl defender intercepts two passes or more. It was Reed's 10th and 11th interceptions of the year, his fourth touchdown of the season and his third game in a row with two interceptions.

"No one's surprised the way Ed Reed plays," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's maybe the best player in the game."

"League MVP, league MVP no doubt," wide receiver Mark Clayton said. "He deserves all the accolades."

Reed is competing with Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. Regardless of whether he wins the award, his impact on the game is unquestionable.

"The kid's a freak, and he's the greatest safety alive," Suggs said. "When he got the ball in his hand, we knew that whenever he sees a crease he's going to hit it like an offensive player. When he gets the ball, he's going to go the distance with it.

"We have arguably one of the greatest players to ever play the game in Ray Lewis and we do have the greatest safety in the game. He proves it week in and week out. Ed Reed can cover everybody on the field. When you've got a duo like that, scary things can happen."

Extremely terrorizing for the Dolphins, whose ability to avoid turnovers had been a constant theme heading into kickoff. Pennington entered the game with an NFL-low seven interceptions and Miami tied the NFL regular-season record with just 13 turnovers.

However, six of those turnovers and five of Pennington's interceptions came this season against the Ravens after throwing one interception that Suggs returned for a touchdown in the first meeting in a 27-13 Baltimore win. The Dolphins reached the playoffs by capitalizing on a weak schedule after going 1-15 last season.

"We heard all week that they don't turn the ball over, but we force turnovers," Lewis said. "We did a great job of going after the ball."

Yes, the Ravens do.

With Reed grabbing two picks and cornerback Fabian Washington and strong safety Jim Leonhard intercepting one pass apiece as well as defensive end Marques Douglas forcing a Patrick Cobbs fumble recovered by Suggs, the Ravens scored two touchdowns off the five turnovers. Pennington couldn't elude Reed no matter how hard he tried, and was picked off again by Reed in the third quarter.

"I knew he was staring it down, that drew me over there and he threw it a little late," Reed said. "I was actually thinking that maybe they won't even come my way. There were times when he was throwing that he would look at me and go another way. Jimmy caught the first one and that got us going. It showed you can't just throw it away from me."

Few quarterbacks can strategize how to effectively deal with Reed's omnipresence. He ranks first in the NFL with 43 interceptions and has racked up over 1,100 return yards since entering the league in 2002 when the Ravens drafted him in the first round of the University of Miami.

"He's got God-given ability and he's probably the best playmaker that's ever been in this league as a safety," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "I saw Paul Krause at the end of his career with the Vikings, but I've never seen a guy with his playmaking ability. I remember when we took him in the first round and he was like the 24th pick. There are a lot of teams that missed on him."

In his first game since being named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year, Pennington was plagued by Reed all day and seemed unprepared for the Ravens' pass rush as they sacked him three times. Pennington completed just 25 of 38 passes for 252 yards, one touchdown and a 53.7 passer rating.

"It always starts up front," defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "We had some favorable matchups, and we took advantage of them. It's quite simple."

The Ravens also shut down the Dolphins' innovative Wildcat offense as running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams combined for just 36 yards on 16 carries.

The Ravens' second-ranked defense allowed just 52 rushing yards, and the Dolphins gained only seven yards on two plays out their gadget offense. Miami converted just 2 of 11 third and fourth downs.

Even when the Dolphins threatened to make this a competitive game in the fourth quarter when Pennington lobbed a two-yard touchdown pass to Brown over a trailing Suggs, cornerback Frank Walker blocked the extra point and Baltimore still led 20-9.

A few drives later, Baltimore rookie quarterback Joe Flacco put the game away for good with a five-yard touchdown run up the middle. The score was set up by running back Willis McGahee's 48-yard dash down to the Dolphins' four-yard line.

Flacco completed just 9 of 23 passes for only 135 yards, but, unlike Pennington, he didn't commit any turnovers and relied on the running game and especially the defense to manufacture another patented victory.

"They've been doing it all year, you get spoiled," said Flacco, who completed just two passes for 14 yards in the second half. "You're sitting on the sidelines, and that's what you expect. You get used to it, and you're asking for it every play. They did it on every play."

Plus, Baltimore rushed for 151 yards on 33 carries, including fullback Le'Ron McClain bulling ahead for 75 yards on 19 carries and scoring an eight-yard touchdown.

"We kept pounding," McClain said. "You have got to keep gutting it out. We were hungry."

Now, the surging Ravens have won for the 10th time in the past 12 games and will play the top-seeded Titans (13-3) on the road next week. The Ravens are the first sixth seed to win a playoff game since 2005. And they'll arrive with Reed on a remarkable roll having intercepted 10 passes in the past seven games.

"We're coming, we're going to Tennessee, be there," Reed said. "Here come the Ravens, the team you don't want to see."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

BALTIMORE RAVENS' REPORT CARD

Quarterback: C

Joe Flacco wasn't nearly as accurate as usual, completing just 9 of 23 passes for 135 yards and no touchdowns for a 59.1 rating. However, the rookie didn't commit a turnover unlike Chad Pennington he rushed for a late touchdown to put the game further out of reach.

Running back: B

The Ravens rushed for 151 yards as fullback Le'Ron McClain redeemed himself for an early fumble to gain 75 yards on 19 carries and scored one touchdown as Willis McGahee gained 62 yards on seven carries, 48 of them on one fourth-quarter run.

Receiver: C-plus

Only veteran wideout Derrick Mason made an impact, catching four passes for 71 yards. There were only a combined total of five other receptions for a total of 64 yards.

Offensive line: B

Joe Flacco was never sacked as the Ravens effectively stonewalled Pro Bowl outside linebacker Joey Porter (17 1/2 sacks). Plus, they opened some gaping holes in the running game.

Defensive line: A-minus

Chad Pennington was constantly harassed by Trevor Pryce and Terrell Suggs, leading to his ugly collection of four interceptions. There was nowhere for the Miami running game to escape to, gaining just 52 yards on the ground on 21 carries.

Linebacker: B-plus

Ray Lewis, Bart Scott, Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson tamed the gimmicky Wildcat offense again and bottled up running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, holding them to a combined 36 yards on 16 carries. Scott's big hit on Chad Pennington set up Jim Leonhard's interception.

Secondary: A-plus

Free safety Ed Reed made a convincing argument for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors, intercepting two passes, including an electrifying 64-yard return for a touchdown. Jim Leonhard and Fabian Washington intercepted one pass apiece, and Leonhard and Haruki Nakamura each registered a half sack.

Special teams: B

Frank Walker blocked an extra point. Sam Koch averaged 43.4 yards per punt. Tom Zbikowski had a 31-yard kickoff return, and Jim Leonhard averaged 10.5 yards per punt return. Matt Stover hit two field goals.


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