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Surprising Dolphins face improved Ravens

MIAMI - Six weeks into the season, the Miami Dolphins still looked a lot like a punch line.

They were 2-4, last in the AFC East and licking their wounds after being manhandled by the Baltimore Ravens. That defeat made it 22 losses in 25 games, and as coach Tony Sparano bemoaned deficiencies in blocking and tackling, it seemed the rebuilding project under the new Bill Parcells regime might take several seasons.

Now, Miami is the NFL's most improbable playoff entrant and three wins from the Super Bowl. With a rookie coach, a castoff quarterback and a roster low on star power, the Dolphins (11-5) have won nine of their past 10 games to claim the AFC East title and make the postseason for the first time since 2001.

Their reward in the first round today: another crack at Baltimore.

This is a rematch in more ways than one, because the Ravens (11-5) are making their third trip to Miami in 13 months. The Dolphins earned their only victory of 2007 by beating Baltimore 22-16 in overtime; the Ravens exacted revenge by winning 27-13 on Oct. 19.

Everyone agrees the Dolphins have improved greatly in the past 2 1/2 months. Blocking and tackling are no longer problems, the offense has become a model of efficiency and the defense can be stingy for long stretches.

Baltimore is better, too. Starting with the victory at Miami, the Ravens have won nine of their past 11 games.

'Everybody talks about the Dolphins being on this ride,' Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis said. 'We don't care about the Dolphins' ride. We're on our own ride.'

At the wheel for the Ravens is rookie Joe Flacco, who in the past 11 games has thrown only five interceptions with 13 touchdown passes. He has helped the Ravens win by such scores as 34-3, 36-7, 41-13, 27-7 and 29-10.

'Where they've grown the most is at the quarterback position,' Sparano said. 'He has total command of the entire playbook. He can keep the play alive, kind of Tony Romo-like. I just see a completely different kid back there right now from the first time we played.'

To the astonishment of Miami fans, Flacco has apparently benefited from the tutelage of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who went 1-15 in his only season as Dolphins head coach last year.

The Ravens gave an emotional Cameron the game ball after their October victory in Miami. Baltimore mounted four long scoring drives, allowed Flacco plenty of time to throw, scored on an interception return and even stuffed the Wildcat, Miami's variation of the single wing that has produced eight touchdowns this season.

Against the Ravens, the Wildcat netted 4 yards in five plays, but they figure they'll see it again Sunday. The Dolphins gained 55 yards in 10 plays from the formation in last Sunday's showdown victory over the New York Jets.

'They have expanded that package,' Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. 'It looks more and more like the complete package, so it's tougher to defend than it was earlier in the year.'

While Miami's trickery failed to work in the earlier meeting, Baltimore was physically superior in that game, bruising more than just the Dolphins' egos.

'That's kind of their M.O.,' Miami cornerback Andre Goodman said. 'They do their best to intimidate you. They did a good job of it the first game. But this is a different team.'

It's a team that belongs in a fantasy league, considering the storybook nature of the Dolphins' transformation. Leading the turnaround has been quarterback Chad Pennington, released by the New York Jets in August and now the AP Comeback Player of the Year.

The Dolphins are the year's comeback team - their 10-game one-year improvement matches the best in NFL history. While a soft schedule has made it easier for them to hide flaws, they're no longer a laughingstock.

'We went from the outhouse to the penthouse,' said linebacker Joey Porter, the AFC sacks leader.

Porter and his band of overachievers will be underdogs today, even playing at home, because doubts persist that Miami belongs in the postseason. Only 11 Dolphins have started a playoff game. One is Pennington, who led the Jets to the postseason three times.

SideBar: Playoffs

Baltimore vs. Miami

When: 1 p.m. today

Where: Miami

TV: CBS

Philadelphia vs. Minnesota

When: 4:30 p.m. today

Where: Minneapolis

TV: Fox