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Improbable season comes to a close for Dolphins

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We all knew it was going to be tough this week.  We all knew how good that Ravens' defense is.  And Sunday's loss, while a difficult way to conclude a magical season, shouldn't have come as a shock to anyone.

But what is shocking is just how the game played out and how the Dolphins ended their season: uncharacteristically.

As good as Baltimore's defense is, I just didn't expect it to go this way.  The Dolphins are a team that simply doesn't turn the ball over.  That's why Sunday's 5 turnovers are so tough to swallow.  And you can't help but to play the "what if" game.

For example, what if the Dolphins get 7 instead of 3 on their opening possession following the fumble recovery?  The Dolphins had two plays from the 1 yard line and couldn't get into the endzone - which goes back to what we talked about this past week.  Settling for 3 inside the redzone is not acceptable against a defense like Baltimore's.  And while some want to question the play-calling, specifically the play-action on 2nd & goal, I see it differently.  One of the biggest problems all season - and again today - has been the Dolphins' inability to pound the rock in for a TD from inside the 5 yard line.

The offensive line has to shoulder some of the blame.  Not only could they not create enough push for a yard, but they routinely failed to open up any running lanes for Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams.  Their pass protection was pretty bad as well - with Chad Pennington taking shot after shot on Sunday.

Moving on, the Ed Reed touchdown was obviously a killer - completely changing the game.  But what if a Dolphin, any Dolphin, is able to get to Reed and bring him down.  That would have been a point saver - a potentially big point saver.  If you want to, you can say that if Reed is tackled, even if the Ravens still scored a TD on that drive, they would have eaten up some clock and might not have had a chance for that pre-halftime field goal to put them up 10.

We can go on and on here and find points either left on the field by the Dolphins.  For instance, what if Pennington doesn't throw that pass inside Baltimore's 20 that Reed picks off.  The Dolphins get at least a FG and cut the score to 20-6.  Then on Miami's next possession, on Ronnie's terrific TD catch, the Dolphins' deficit would have been just 7 (if the damn extra point isn't blocked...another mistake).

What makes the "what if" game so painful, though, is that despite all the mistakes, the Dolphins had the ball and the momentum, trailing by 11 with 9 minutes to go.  That's when Pennington and Ted Ginn had their failed exchange on the end-around that killed that drive and essentially ended the game.  Some here will want to blame the play-calling.  I won't.  Did anyone happen to see the lane down the left sideline if Ginn can get a clean exchange from Pennington?  No doubt that's a big gain, or a touchdown, if the hand-off is clean.  But it wasn't - and for that, I blame the offensive line.  The Ravens had 2 guys in the backfield even before Pennington could fake the hand-off to the RB.

Again, uncharacteristic mistakes killed this team.  That end-around is a perfect example of the "what ifs" that will haunt you all offseason long.  If that exchange is clean, a potentially game-changing, season-saving play unfolds.  Instead, the result is a game-ending, season-ending play.

"It got away from me."

Those are the words of Chad Pennington following Sunday's loss.

"I told Chad he's my guy. I couldn't thank him enough for what he's done for us."

Those are the words of Tony Sparano.

Here's what I know.  Chad Pennington is the reason the Dolphins got to where they were on Sunday.  He's the reason the Dolphins are AFC East Champions.  And like I said in a previous post, nothing can ever take that title away from this team.  Without Chad, this magical season never happens.

Now sure, Pennington had a rough day - and it was a truly bad time for a game like he had.  But to blame the loss on him is ridiculous.  He had no running game.  He had no pass protection.  He had hardly any open receivers.  So he took chances.  He made some throws he likely wouldn't have ever made if his receivers could get open and if he had the kind of time Joe Flacco had to throw the ball.

This loss on Sunday is a total and complete team loss.  No one player is responsible.  But it says a lot about Pennington the way he held himself after the game.  He teared up.  He took the blame.  And he acted like the true leader he is.

And that's why teammate after teammate went up to Pennington after the game in the locker room and gave him words of encouragement or patted him on the back - even after the kind of poor performance he put forth on Sunday.  That shows you what his teammates think of him.  He's the leader of this team.  And I will forever hold him in high regard.

With that said, I fully expect there to be an open QB competition between Pennington and Chad Henne.  And I fully expect Tony Sparano to play the QB who performs the best in camp next year.  And I fully expect that our week 1 2009 starting quarterback will be Chad Pennington.

My favorite quote of Pennington's after game?  He was asked where he'll be spending the offseason.  Chad simply responded, "Here.  I'm staying here."

-This offensive line needs to be upgraded.  You have to wonder about Vernon Carey's future in Miami, too.  It's easy to say we'll be fine next year along the line because Donald Thomas and Justin Smiley will be back.  But the fact of the matter is we don't know if they will be ready for next year.  And if they are, will they be as good as they were (or had the potential to be)?

-I have to say my one problem with the play-calling was the decision to run east and west when attempting to run.  Baltimore's defense is too fast for that.  Go between the tackles and hope for the best.  Don't run those odd "sweep-like" plays to the outside.

-The Ravens do not miss tackles, huh?

-A pass rusher is desperately needed.  Joe Flacco had all day to throw - all damn day.  It was laughable, really.  I can't recall seeing a QB have as much time as he did to throw - which is dangerous when the QB has a big arm.

-Derrick Mason owned Will Allen.  That 31 yard pass play before halftime was a great example of a great route runner owning a cornerback.

-This team so desperately needs a #1 receiver.

-Was Anthony Fasano even on the field?  Bad job by Dan Henning to seemingly totally forget about one of the team's best pass-catchers.

-What a ridiculous catch by Ronnie Brown!

"I told our guys I'm proud of them and want 'em to walk out with their heads up. That's not what they wanted to hear right now, but I needed to tell them." - Tony Sparano

That's not what many fans will want to hear, either.  But let's face it: the Dolphins lost to a team that is better than they are.  That's not a knock on the Dolphins by any means.  This might be my all-time favorite Dolphins team.  But they got out-played on Sunday to a team that is better than they are. 

Does that tarnish what the 2008 Miami Dolphins accomplished?  Hell no!  1-15 to 11-5 and division champions is a remarkable feat and one that will go down in NFL history.  And I've never been prouder of a team than I am of this very one.

So I leave you with a quote from Davone Bess:

"At the end of the day, this was a special season."