With their playoff hopes hanging on by a thread, the (8-7) New York Jets will travel to beautiful Miami, Florida to face the (5-10) Dolphins. Much has to happen for Gang Green to sneak into the postseason, but beating the Fins is the unavoidable first step. Crazier things have occurred, and I fully expect Rex Ryan's squad to come out with an intensity that we haven't seen in many weeks. For the key players and matchups for what might just be the Jets' final game of the season, you're going to have to jump.
When these two teams met for the first time in October, the Jets parlayed a dominating defensive performance into a 24-6 victory. It was the Dolphins fifth straight loss to begin the season, a streak that would continue until week 8. However, Miami managed to turn it around in November, going (5-3) in their last eight games. This is a team built around running the ball and stopping the run (sound familiar?), and actually employ one of the best pass rushes in the league. The Dolphins aren't the same team that folded in October, but are still a favorable matchup for the Jets. This leads into the first key of the game:
- Brian Schottenheimer: In a city that is notoriously inpatient with sports figures, Brian Schottenheimer has somehow managed to retain his high-profile position since 2006. I'm usually the last person to call for heads to roll, but I can now confidently say that Schottenheimer's presence severely impedes the team's progress. His offense has always been far from surprising, but is now as predictable as the sun rising. It doesn't take a former player or a defensive coordinator to anticipate what play Schotty is going to call, as his maddening tendencies have developed into patterns over the years. Schottenheimer also greatly struggles with adapting to the game, and often sticks with the gameplan throughout the match, even when it becomes painfully obvious that it is just not working (i.e., repeatedly throwing the slant against the Giants). I have come to expect screen passes on 3rd and long and deep throws on 4th and 1, so picking the Jets to beat ANY team is difficult with a wild card like Schottenheimer at such an important position. Schotty doesn't have to call a brilliant game this Sunday, but this is a very winnable game if he manages to avoid disaster.
- Cameron Wake vs. Wayne Hunter: In their first matchup of the season, Wayne Hunter dominated Cameron Wake. That is not a typo, the Jets' "Human Turnstile" played very well against the Dolphins in October, holding Wake to just 2 tackles. Cameron Wake has experienced a slight dip in production (he had 14 sacks last year, and only 8.5 this year), but I fear that this matchup will be one to watch throughout the game. In week 6, Wayne Hunter entered the game with all the momentum and a great deal of confidence. After a rough start to the season, he enjoyed a brief stretch of games in which he looked downright competent, and the Dolphins game was the culmination of that. This week is the opposite: Hunter is coming in on a downward slope, and Wake has recorded a sack in each of his last two games. We all know how important it is to keep the pressure away from Mark Sanchez, and Hunter's matchup with Wake will be critical if the Jets have any hopes of neutralizing Miami's 9th ranked pass rush.
- Mark Sanchez: In the Jets week 6 matchup with the Dolphins, Sanchez delivered an efficient (but at times ugly) 14-25 performance, good for 201 yards and 1 TD. He avoided the big mistake all day, and that is what he will have to do this week. The Dolphins have been superb against the run (3rd in the league), but have given up an 84.4 QB rating to opposing QBs (17th in the NFL). Rex Ryan has already re-committed to the running game, but it will likely be Sanchez' game to win if Shonn Greene falters. In what has been a season marked by ups and downs, I believe that Sanchez will step up once again in what is essentially a playoff game.
- Reggie Bush vs. Sione Pouha & The Jets Linebackers: Reggie Bush has shaken off a slow start to deliver the best season of his young career. His 1,086 rushing yards are almost double that of his previous career high, and his 6 TD and 5.0 yards per carry are very solid as well. He has eclipsed 100 yards in his last four games, including a 203 yard effort against the Bills in Week 14. By all means, Sione Pouha and the rest of the defensive line will have their hands full in trying to win at the point of attack, but Bush's shifty running style indicates that the linebackers will be busy as well. Matt Moore has played well this season, but the Jets appeared to have his number during their first matchup (they limited him to a 41.8 passer rating, his lowest of the season). This means that Reggie Bush will present the most danger to the Jets' defense, so slowing him down will be essential in stopping the Miami offense.
- Rex Ryan: After the loss to the Giants, the media and the fans have decided to turn against the (8-7) Jets. In fact, the Dolphins are the 3-point favorites this week, despite having three less victories. These are the same Dolphins that looked positively helpless against the Jets in Week 6, and the same Dolphins that have only beaten one winning team all season long. Rex Ryan has proven to be quite adequate at motivating his team, and being listed as the underdog against the Miami Dolphins should be enough stimulus to last a lifetime. If the Jets have any sense of pride left in them, they will come out and demolish the Dolphins, who have been inferior all season long.
- On a Wing and a Prayer: Even if the Jets win, they will need help from a few other teams in the league to sneak into the playoffs. Here is what has to happen:
- Jets win @ Miami
- Cincinnati loss vs. Baltimore (I think this is very likely to happen, Baltimore is still playing for the #2 seed)
- Denver loss vs Kansas City OR Oakland loss vs. San Diego (I think one of these is very likely to happen, I don't have much faith in Denver or Oakland)
- Tennessee loss @ Houston (This is the game that is least likely to help the Jets. Houston doesn't have much to play for, and is starting a rookie QB. The Titans aren't world-beaters, but they are a decent team that will be playing for their season.)
Player to Watch: The last two games have seen very disappointing play by The Sanchize, but lets not overlook that his overall stats are much improved from last season. He has already set career highs in touchdowns and QB rating, and he is only 24 yards away from surpassing his yardage total from last season. Also, he has improved his completion percentage, a statistic that has plagued him throughout his first two seasons. He has struggled against intense pass rushes all season long, but he has shown toughness and resiliency his whole career, especially when backed against a wall. However, his recent play has sparked rumors that the Jets' organization is reportedly considering replacing him:
A league source tells PFT that the Jets are beginning to realize that Sanchez may not be the answer at the position. That said, the Jets will not publicly acknowledge even the possibility that Sanchez is falling out of favor.
I highly doubt that the Jets would have such a short leash with Sanchez, but this might be the kick in the pants that Sanchez has needed. He is going up against a shoddy secondary, and has the weapons to dominate this game. If Brian Schottenheimer doesn't get in the way, Mark Sanchez could be in for a huge game.
Prediction: At this point, nothing would surprise me. The Jets have the talent to demolish any team in the league, but have also been inconsistent enough to blow any game. I still have faith in Rex Ryan, so I believe that he will have his team ready to compete. Mark Sanchez will throw for 300 yards and 2 TD, and LaDainian Tomlinson will run another one in for a score. The Jets will take away Miami's running game, and will force Matt Moore to beat them. He will be unable to take advantage of the Jets' weak play at safety, and the Jets will run away with it. I have been very optimistic all season, and will continue to be this week. I think that the Jets will receive the help that they need from the other teams, and it would not shock me if the Jets backed into the playoffs once again.