Can Baltimore finally win a playoff game? It's been just shy of eight years since they defeated the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.
It's fitting, then, that the Ravens will be led in their first playoff game since 2007 by a quarterback who was a freshman in high school since their last post-season victory - Joe Flacco.
Miami is coming off one of the worst seasons in NFL history, and their dramatic turnaround and spurned on by an excellent coaching staff and the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year, Chad Pennington. He had his best year as a pro, and took the Dolphins from worst-to-first in the AFC East.
The Steelers will face the Dolphins, should they defeat the favored Ravens tonight. If Baltimore breaks their post-season losing streak, the upstart Chargers will travel to Pittsburgh. Which of these fantastically coached teams will move on? It's really a matter of the match-ups.
LT Adam Terry vs. OLB Joey Porter
We should almost put RT Willie Anderson in here as well. When Baltimore runs behind their overloaded set (both tackles on the left side), it's usually game over for its opponents. To set that up, however, Flacco will have to do what he does best; hit a few intermediate throws and protect the ball. Terry has to keep Flacco's jersey clean or the Ravens running game will struggle to get going against a stingy Dolphins defense.
Expect the Ravens to run at the loquacious Porter, who will no-doubt bait them into attacking him with his constant trash talk. The Ravens know Porter well. They also know he's much better in pursuit than he is at the point of attack, so Terry and Anderson will likely be kicking out on him to seal off the edge and provide cut-back lanes for RBs Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain.
OLB Terrell Suggs vs. LT Jake Long
On the other side of the ball, the edge match-up is also critical. Despite the rookie Long's immense physical talent, he's going to be exploited from a mental standpoint. Ravens defensive coordinator has thrown in an adaptation of his father's 46 defense, and will overload Long with Suggs and a variety of other Ravens defenders - linemen, linebackers and defensive backs. The combination of defenders on the Dolphins rookie won't necessarily be designed to bring pressure over Long or the C gap, either. Ryan also pays attention to what Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau does, and will force Long to a decision, but ultimately, the blitz will be designed for a third defender unidentifiable at the snap.
Suggs is intimidating enough of a pass rusher, and while he'll have his opportunity to work on the rookie on a one-on-one basis, look for Ryan to use him as a distraction to Long in efforts to open up space for another defender. The key to long's success in this game will be maintaining discipline and keeping his feet moving. Pennington will also have to slide protection to Suggs' side, which could be enough to isolate the Ravens intense pass rush.
NT Haloti Ngata vs. C Samson Satele
The Ravens are able to accomplish arguably the most pressure against the QB in the NFL because of Ngata's versatility. He's a fantastic run-stopper, but his agility gives Ryan the option of stunting him, or even lining him up in space. Ngata's size and speed make him as difficult a match-up one-on-one as any defensive lineman in the league.
Miami loves to run the ball, and have had a good amount of success in that phase this season. However, they were almost entirely shut down in a 27-13 loss at Baltimore in Week 7. Miami did keep Ngata out of the realm of effectiveness against the pass, and considering any team in the NFL will struggle greatly to run against the Ravens, Satele will be counted on to direct much of the communication along the line to protect Pennington in the passing game. Ngata is the key to Ravens pass rush, and the best chance the Dolphins have to move the ball is through the air.
FS Ed Reed vs. QB Chad Pennington
Reed made a strong and convincing push for Defensive Player of the Year with several critical turnovers (and subsequent touchdowns in some cases). Reed has an unbelievable sense of where the ball is going, and capitalizes on any mistake a passer makes. Baltimore puts him in ideal situations to utilize his instincts, and rarely do the Ravens lose a game where he makes a big play.
Pennington already has to account for a tough front seven, but the straw that stirs their defensive drink is Reed lurking in the intermediate passing lanes. The pressure is designed to confuse the passer, but Reed instinctively knows where the passer will roll when faced with the rush, and fills in perfectly. Pennington has played brilliantly this year, and if he stays sharp and doesn't force anything, he can keep Reed from making big plays.