MIAMI - For the defending NFL champion Ravens, the postseason begins with a hard look in the mirror.
Fifty weeks after hoisting the Super Bowl trophy, the Ravens will feel the heat increase today as they open the playoffs against a Miami Dolphins team that matches them in personality, toughness and weaknesses.
The AFC wild-card game at Pro Player Stadium will feature two dominating defenses led by crushing middle linebackers and two ordinary offenses at the mercy of turnover-prone quarterbacks.
Translation: one touchdown may be enough to win and one turnover may be enough to lose.
"When I look at them on film, I see us in teal and orange," Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "They pride themselves on defense, like we do.
"When they turn the football over, they've lost, too. Possessions are at a premium and taking care of the football is paramount. The team that does that the best is going to win."
Turnovers are a shared misery with the Ravens (10-6) and Dolphins (11-5).
A season after ranking atop the league in forcing turnovers, these teams have had reversals of fortune. The Ravens and Dolphins rank in the bottom quarter of the league in giveaways, each turning the ball over an average of twice per game.
The biggest determinant in whether the Ravens win or lose likely will be the number of mistakes by quarterback Elvis Grbac.
When Grbac has thrown fewer than two interceptions in a game, the Ravens have gone 8-1. When he's gotten picked off two or more times, the Ravens are 0-5.
"In the playoffs, there are only so many chances you have," Grbac said. "You've got to take care of the prize that you have."
Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler knows the story.
Miami is 8-2 when Fiedler throws fewer than two interceptions. When he's picked off at least twice, the Dolphins are 3-4.
"It's always a factor in the playoffs," said Fiedler, who has thrown four interceptions on his first play of a game. "Every mistake is magnified."
While these teams' offenses have been erratic, their defenses have been defiant. The Ravens are ranked second in defense in the league, the Dolphins fifth.
The success for each defense is based on two Pro Bowl middle linebackers, the Ravens' Ray Lewis and Miami's Zach Thomas. They finished the regular season tied atop the league with 117 solo tackles apiece.
Lewis spearheaded last season's Super Bowl run, leading all players with 44 tackles, breaking up seven passes and intercepting two. He returned one of those picks 50 yards for his first NFL touchdown.
For Lewis, the playoffs are a different season, a different level.
"Everything changes in the playoffs," Lewis said. "We all know that. It's 60 minutes that you have to truly dedicate with whatever passion and whatever energy that you have."
The Ravens have tremendous respect for Thomas, who is about an inch shorter and 10 pounds lighter than Lewis.
"He's probably the best linebacker I've played, minus playing the guy here," Ravens center Mike Flynn said. "The biggest thing he has is his speed and his quickness and how he reads a play so well. His motor is 100 miles per hour. He's a guy we have to account for if we want to run anything up inside."
Thomas is expected to play despite neck and shoulder injuries that sidelined him for the regular-season finale.
"He may not be the best of all athletes, but he can close on things," Grbac said of Thomas. "He's smart, he's aggressive. He runs the show there. He's a perfect middle linebacker."
If the Ravens are able to crack Miami and its top-ranked pass defense, they will likely have to tap Sharpe and his playoff experience.
Sharpe, who has won 11 straight playoff games, was the offensive spark that carried the Ravens to the Super Bowl. In the team's first three postseason wins, he caught five passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns. That's a 45-yard average.
The Dolphins have speculated that they might match rookie outside linebacker Morlon Greenwood with Sharpe.
"They used to call me `Big Game' because I could dominate a whole game," Sharpe said. "But now they just call me `Big Play' because I only have one or two left in me. I know one thing: I haven't used them up in the regular season, so, hopefully, I have one or two left."
The Ravens will either take one step closer to the Super Bowl or walk off the field for the final time as defending champion.
"We're defending champions still until someone else wins the Super Bowl," fullback Sam Gash said. "We have to start realizing that's the mentality and the attitude that we have to take.
"They've got to beat us. Everybody else has to come to us whether we're on the road or wherever. We still have a mystique about us and we have to carry that through the playoffs."
For others, it's not about retaining the title; the mission is to capture another championship.
"The past is the past," receiver Qadry Ismail said. "That Super Bowl trophy out there is a piece of hardware right now. It's not going to win you any game."
Playing it close
The Dolphins and Ravens were successful in tight games this season. Here's a look at the NFL's best records in games decided by eight points or fewer (*-made playoffs):
Team W-L Pct.
Chicago* 8-1 .888
Miami* 6-2 .750
Seattle 6-2 .750
N.Y. Jets* 8-3 .727
Ravens* 5-2 .714
Pittsburgh* 5-2 .714