The Jets return home for the final week of the regular season to take on their bitter rival, the Miami Dolphins. Gang Green is on the verge of yet another epic collapse. This team has gone from AFC favorite five short weeks ago to on life support and in need of help this Sunday. Because Baltimore's game kicks off at the same time, New York is guaranteed to be alive when this contest starts. The question is how much there is left in the tank.
There are plenty of subplots in this game. Chad Pennington returns to the Meadowlands this week. He has a chance to eliminate the team that released him after eight years of service back in August. In doing so, he would help to complete the biggest turnaround in NFL history and lead his new squad into the Playoffs.
This could also be the last game in Brett Favre's legendary career. Brett surely will be inducted into Canton on the first ballot after over a decade and a half of stellar play. With age 40 bearing down on him, he has hinted that he is worn down after his first season in New York. For a guy who has seriously considered retirement after the past few seasons and actually retired a few months ago, this year might finally be what makes him think it is not worth continuing. Favre still does not want to see his predecessor celebrate a division title on his new home field and end his career with the mocking that would surely follow from the press.
Eric Mangini could be coaching for his job on Sunday. There is almost universal disapproval of the job he has done from the fans and the media. It is difficult to find somebody following this team who does not think he should be fired. Even Herman Edwards had a decent portion of the fanbase defending him during the disastrous 2005 season. Woody Johnson has shown the fans a willingness to listen. That is why he sent Edwards to Kansas City and opened his wallet after a 4-12 season. Fans called for both to occur. If Mangini cannot deliver the Playoffs after an 8-3 start, seven Pro Bowlers, and spending in nine figures, he might be on the way out. With a win, Eric can at least argue that he has won ten games in two of three years, and that should be enough to get a fourth season provided he will make wholesale changes.
Finally, the AFC East title is at stake with two rivals competing. The Dolphins can win the division for the first time since 2000 with a victory. The Jets can take the East for the first time since 2002 with a win and a Buffalo victory over New England.
Miami is led by head coach Tony Sparano. The former Dallas assistant has completely changed the culture in his first year with the team. Front office man Bill Parcells knew Sparano was his guy from the outset and with good reason. The Dolphins now execute, avoid stupid mistakes, and stay on the field. It is against team policy to be injured. Some fans might laugh at this, but football players often forget the difference between being banged up and being legitimately hurt. One of Parcells' best qualities as a coach was that he never tolerated his guys milking injuries when they could have played. Anybody who did so lost his job. Sparano has instituted the same level of toughness and added another above excellent head coach to the Parcells coaching tree.
Old friend Chad Pennington runs Miami's offense. He is having his best year since 2002 and is giving the Dolphins the first quality quarterbacking they have seen since Dan Marino retired. Chad has hit 67% of his passes and thrown 17 touchdowns against 7 interceptions. He is lethal in the short passing game, displaying pinpoint accuracy and a nice touch. Chad has also helped to change the culture. Miami finally has a leader in its huddle. Pennington always gains the respect of his teammates. He is a fierce competitor and always leaves his best effort on the field. Because of two torn rotator cuffs, his arm strength is below average. He cannot make all the throws. However, he has been much better playing within himself this year. He does not try and force throws into traffic, and the result has been reduced interceptions. Chad has a new fire in him this season. Being released by the Jets motivated him. He was in the midst of an average training camp and no lock to win the starting job when New York traded for Brett Favre. The Dolphins were fortunate enough to land him. There is some debate as to whether the Jets would have been better off keeping Chad over Brett. There would have been little difference either way. What is true is that Chad is a monumental upgrade over Cleo Lemon and John Beck. Dolphins fans are not used to having a coherent offensive attack so they can be excused for going a little overboard discussing Pennington's greatness and even claiming as some have that he deserves the MVP over Peyton Manning.
Pennington has done a great job spreading the ball around this season. The Dolphins rank eleventh in the league in passing yardage even though nobody has more than 55 catches or 719 yards. Greg Camarillo and Ted Ginn Jr. are his top two targets at wideout. Ginn has come on this season as a deep threat and shown signs that he may eventually live up to his top ten Draft hype. The Fins have two tight ends, David Martin and Anthony Fasano, who have combined for 61 receptions, 857 yards, and 9 touchdowns. Fasano had a big Week 1 against the Jets, setting a tone for a lousy season of defending tight ends. Both will probably see a lot of action.
Miami has a solid running game led by Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. Brown has run for 859 yards and a 4.2 average, while Williams, seeing extended action for the second time since 2003, has 609 rushing yards and a 4.1 average. They have been active as Pennington's check down targets, combining for over 50 catches and 450 yards. The Dolphins have used the two in the University of Arkansas' Wildcat formation. Brown lines up as quarterback and runs a zone read set with Williams next to him. Brown has completed a pair of passes out of the formation. The Dolphins line Chad Pennington as a receiver and lateraled him the ball to throw a deep pass against Houston, completely catching the Texans off guard. Even though defenses can identify this formation as gadgetry, they have a tough time stopping it. Most teams around the league have copied Miami and run some version of the Wildcat. It will be something to watch.
Miami's offensive line is vastly improved this season, having given up only 25 sacks. Rookie left tackle Jake Long, who had a couple of penalties in the opener, has matured quickly and been every bit the rock at left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson has been for the Jets.
It has been a great year for Miami defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni. He used to coach at Syracuse University, where he enjoyed a relatively successful run. That school ran him out four years ago for Greg Robinson, who was a disaster and fired this year as the program became one of college football's laughingstocks. Pasqualoni has also led an improved defensive unit. His defense has been tenth best against the run this year. A lot of the credit has to go to Jason Ferguson. Miami stole the former Jet from Dallas along with Fasano for a sixth round pick. Ferguson is the prototypical two gapper. It took the Jets three years to finally replace him with Kris Jenkins after his defection to the Cowboys in 2005. Fergy is more of a conventional space eater than Jenkins, who has a quick first step, but he has been very effective. Ferguson is flanked by Kendall Langford and Vonnie Holliday in Miami's 3-4.
The resurgence of Joey Porter has added teeth to Miami's pass rush. The former Steeler has 17.5 of the team's 40 sacks. The other outside linebacker, Matt Roth is second on the team with 5. To say the Jets should focus their blocking schemes on Porter would be an understatement.
The Miami pass defense has been mediocre, ranking twenty-fifth in the NFL. Former Giant Will Allen and Andre' Goodman start at the corners for Miami and are tied with starting safety Reynaldo Hill for the team lead in interceptions with 3. Yeremiah Bell starts at strong safety. Despite the unit's struggles against the pass, the Dolphins are tied for ninth in interceptions. However, even with Porter generating a consistent pass rush, opponents have put together big games. The immortal Tyler Thigpen threw for 320 against them last week. The Jets made Thigpen look like Len Dawson earlier this year, and he did not even throw for that much when they played him.
Dan Carpenter has connected on 20 of 24 kicks this season so it appears the Dolphins have not missed Jay Feely much. Brandon Fields averages under 44 yards per punt despite playing half of his games in perfect conditions. His average was under 40 last week in bad conditions. Devon Bess is the primary return man and averages 22.2 per kickoff runback and 10.8 on punts, not in the class of Leon Washington's explosiveness on a typical day.
On a final note, the Dolphins jettisoned Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor this offseason, their longtime team leaders. Eliminating their influence as the most important people the locker room has coincided with the team winning. It is funny how things like that work out. In other news, their respective new teams, Washington and Dallas, Playoff teams a year ago appear likely to miss the postseason, despite adding these great winners.
Key Matchup: Calvin Pace vs. Jake Long
Even though this team cannot generate a pass rush out of its base defense, we can say pretty confidently that Bob Sutton will not adjust and blitz more. If he has not for four months, there is no reason for him to start now. That means to get pressure on Chad Pennington, the only Jet defender who can seem to beat an offensive lineman will need a big game.
Keys to Victory:
1. Run, Run, Run: Brett Favre is banged up and struggling. A quarterback with pinpoint accuracy and the capability of dinking and dunking over the middle on long drives like Pennington is this defense's worst nightmare. Thomas Jones went over the century mark in the first meeting, and that was before this offensive line really gelled. The Jets run the ball better than they do anything else. They need to pound it consistently to take the game out of Favre's hands, keep the clock running, and keep Pennington off the field.
2. At Least Ten Offensive Touches for Leon: If the biggest playmaker on the team does not see the ball at least that many times in the biggest game of the year, Brian Schottenheimer should be fired before he leaves the stadium Sunday night. Leon almost single-handedly won a game at Miami on Christmas Night in 2006. He should be given the opportunity to do the same now.
3. Press Coverage: Miami does not have a legitimate number one receiver. It may be risky given the quality of the secondary, but the Jets cannot give these receivers cushion. Pennington will kill them underneath. Darrelle Revis will be fine. It is time for Ty Law to live up to his big game reputation and for Dwight Lowery to grow up. Lowery played great in the opener against Miami.
4. Get Keller Involved: Dustin Keller has disappeared in the past few weeks. The Dolphins saw little of him in the Week 1 meeting, making Dustin unfamiliar to them, and do not have have linebackers capable of running with him on pass routes.
5. Bright Lights on Hollywood: Kerry Rhodes has made few game-changing plays this year, unlike 2006 and 2007. The Jets need him to step up and force a turnover.
All Jets fans can do is hope for the best. Things look bleak. A guy who plays like Pennington is a tough, tough matchup for a defense that has had a nightmare all season defending the short stuff. Chad will surely be motivated. This Jets team has shown little to inspire confidence for this game. The coaching staff has shown an inability to develop any coherent plan since Tennessee. If nothing else, we will see whether this team has even an ounce of heart or pride and puts up a fight or whether it lies down on its home field to a bitter rival.