The Ravens' 27-9 victory over the Miami Dolphins in a wild-card playoff game was just a warm-up. The real contenders start playing next weekend with the Titans-Ravens rematch and the San Diego Chargers traveling to Pittsburgh. They all have real defenses and real quarterbacks who can make plays. They all have run-oriented offenses and play smash-mouth football.
The Ravens joined the best of the NFL two weeks ago when they beat the Dallas Cowboys, so they did what was expected yesterday. They physically pounded Miami for the second time this season, and you knew it was going to happen unless the Dolphins had found a supply of steroids on the beaches in Fort Lauderdale during the previous two months. Tough guys, the Dolphins aren't.
The Ravens made Miami look like pretenders, exposing the weak arm of quarterback Chad Pennington and the gimmicky Dolphins offense. They pushed Miami's run defense around, and afterward you had to wonder how Miami won 11 games this season even in the watered-down NFL.
But it won't be that easy against Tennessee.
"Come on, let's not kid ourselves," said Ravens fullback Lorenzo Neal, in his 16th season. "It's great to win any playoff game, especially on the road. But if we leave our defense exposed like that on the field next week with no points, we're in trouble."
"Our defense gave us the ball at the 40 once, and the 50 twice, and we didn't score any points," Neal said. "Those are the kinds of things that Lorenzo Neal, Derrick Mason, Le'Ron McClain and Joe Flacco better be concerned with. We play a team next week that likes to run like us, play great defense like us and will smack you around. If you don't score points off turnovers, those points will come back to haunt you in close games."
The Ravens certainly won't be sneaking up on the Titans. Tennessee beat the Ravens, 13-10, on Oct. 5. LP Field is also where former Ravens coach Brian Billick delivered his best post-game speech when asked about his team coming into town with so much mouth.
"You come in kicking the door down, screaming like a banshee and asking, where is the son of a b - -?" Billick said.
Safety Ed Reed let the Titans know the Ravens were coming.
"Tennessee, here we come," Reed said. "Here come the Ravens. The team you don't want to see."
Two things that stand out about Reed, who might be the best ever at his position.
The first is his long, loping stride. No defensive player in the NFL covers as much ground in such a short time. It's not like Reed is 6 feet 4 or 6-5. He is only 5-11. When Reed is in full stride, he doesn't look as if he is running hard, but rather just striding and stalking.
The second is his field of vision. It's uncanny how he can find the open field after an interception. He finds his blockers, sets them up and makes great cutbacks.
Reed is so good at finding holes that at times it looks as if the action has stopped because he is so far ahead of everyone else in his thinking.
The hit of the day belonged to Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. On Reed's 64-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first half, Ngata demolished Miami wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr.
Ginn was hit and flattened so hard that he blended in with the turf at Dolphin Stadium.
"He's a man," Ngata said of Ginn. "I give him credit. He got up."
Don't play soft
With a lead of 20-3 in the third quarter, the Ravens started playing soft and allowing the Dolphins to complete short passes.
After one to Ginn, Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle looked to the team's sideline and hunched his shoulders as if to say, "OK, Rex, when you going to do something about this?"
Rex Ryan, the defensive coordinator, didn't have to do anything. Four plays later, Reed stepped in front of one of those short Pennington softballs intended for running back Patrick Cobbs at the Ravens' 15-yard line for the safety's second interception.
"We knew they couldn't beat us except for some type of trick play," Rolle said. "But as a competitor, you want to step in front and take one of those passes the other way."
Rolle had three tackles, two near the line of scrimmage on running back Ronnie Brown. Rolle is not known for attacking the line of scrimmage.
"It's playoff time," Rolle said, laughing. "There is no tomorrow."
No rest for the weary
A major key against the Titans will be how well the Ravens hold up physically. There were a lot of players limping with injuries after the game, while the Titans had a bye week.
When the Ravens play Tennessee, they will become what's believed to be the first team in the NFL bye era to play 17 games without a week off.
"It's great to be a part of history if that's true," Neal said. "I want to take it a step further. Let's be the first team to make it 18 straight."
When it comes to playing the Ravens, Miami should forget about the Wildcat offense. There were times when it seemed as if Ryan blitzed the entire defense and just made sure gaps were protected.
The Ravens smothered Miami's offense.
Hold on, Terrell
Ravens outside linebacker-defensive end Terrell Suggs (aka T-Sizzle) never ceases to amaze me. This was the latest gem from Suggs yesterday on Reed.
"We as a team are disappointed that he [Reed] didn't get the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, but then again, we probably didn't want him to win it," Suggs said. "Everyone who has won an individual award is either out of the playoffs or they didn't make it at all."
Maybe Reed didn't receive it because it has been given out yet. Sometimes T-Sizzle fizzles.
Listen to Mike Preston on Mondays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Fox Sports (1370 AM).