Breaking down Sunday's Miami Dolphins at New York Jets game (1 p.m., Eastern, CBS) ...
1. Who's playing for what and why? Here's the easy part: Miami's playing for an automatic playoff bid as the AFC East titleholder. If they win, they're in. If they lose, they need all sorts of help to get the last wildcard spot (they lose a tiebreaker to Baltimore...), so let's not even go there. Win and you're in, 'Fins.
Then there's all the emotional stuff. They're playing for respect. If they win they'll be the first team to make the playoffs after a one-win season. Imagine how you'll tell that one to your kids 20 years from now: "...Worst team in the league ... And what turned 'em around? A rookie coach, a pothead running back, a washed-up quarterback with a gimpy arm and a running formation nobody had seen in ages..."
And there's the Chad Pennington revenge factor. He won't say it, but we all know a win in the Meadowlands is the ultimate vindication for his August release from the Jets. Living in New York where the radio callers turned on Pennington's replacement, Brett Favre, weeks ago, I won't be surprised if Pennington throws a last-second touchdown to win the game and gets a standing ovation for it. I can picture it now, 'ol Noodle-Arm Chad wind-milling around the stadium, high-fiving fans and chest-bumping the J-E-T-S fireman. Meanwhile, Favre's on the first plane back to Mississippi. Really, it could happen. ...
For the Jets, it's trickier. Playoff-wise, if they win, they still need a New England loss in Orchard Park to take the division or a Ravens loss at home to secure the wild card. If they lose, they're toast.
Dignity-wise, they're in an all-or-nothing situation, starting with Favre, who's playing to prove his comeback was a good idea, and ending with coach Eric Mangini, whose job could -- but, realistically, probably isn't -- on the line...
2. ...But it should be. Mangini needs a win here as badly as anyone else. Check out his body language lately. Forget John Donne, this guy's an island. Mangini comes from the Bill Belichik (and less directly, the Lovie Smith) school of stone-faced isolation. And that's all fine and dandy when you're marching to the Super Bowl year after year, but as the Jets' ship crashes and burns wouldn't it be nice to see just a little fire in Mangini's eyes? Perhaps an outburst or a screaming fit or a mascot-kicking incident every so often?
Then again, I'm not sure what he'd say. "Sorry guys, my bad," perhaps? Last week, with an easy chance to position his team for a playoff run, Mangini blew it big time twice by my count. On the first drive of the game he chickened out and called for a field goal from Seattle's two-yard line with less than a yard to go for the first down even though the Jets were averaging almost seven yards per carry on the drive. (What's the worst that could have happened, coach? 'Hawks ball at their own 2 in a scoreless game.)
Later, the Jets were down by seven when they got called for a delay of game, negating a 45-yard field goal that Jay Feely had put straight down the middle with almost 10 yards to give. Instead of re-kicking Mangini called out his punter who pinned the Seahawks back on their own seven. Net effect: a 25-yard punt and the Jets were still down seven with barely 13 minutes left.
After all the money Woody Johnson spent in free agency, it'll be tough for the coach to defend himself this offseason without a win in the finale and at least a fighting chance at the playoffs. For that to happen, he'll have to show some guts against the Dolphins. Expect him to make the right call now that the Jets don't have the upper hand.
3. Defensively, the Jets need to see the old Kris Jenkins. Statistically speaking, the 349-pound defensive tackle had one of his best games against Seattle: five stops and a pass defended. But those numbers don't tell the whole story. Most of those were Ray Lewis tackles -- meaning he just piled on after the play was already over. Only once, on a shoe-string tackle at the line of scrimmage, did I see him make a big difference in that game, and shoe-string tackles aren't what Jenkins gets paid for.
It's clear that Jenkins is running out of steam late in the season -- just watch him get held up at the line of scrimmage. It shows on his stat sheet, too: He hasn't made a play behind the line of scrimmage in over three games.
On passing downs, that's lending opponents too much time in the pocket. The Jets defensive backs can only hold tight for so long, so against Seattle and Buffalo the week before you saw a lot of shorter underneath passes that opened up as the play went along. The Bills only managed 148 passing yards, for example, but they were able to work their way to manageable distances on third down with the run and J.P. Losman converted 14 first downs with his arm because the Jets couldn't manage a pass rush for all three quarters.
Much of that pocket-collapsing responsibility falls on Jenkins, who needs to create a strong push from the middle. Given enough time, Pennington, who's especially deft with the short ball, will make the Jets pay.
4. Whichever Jenkins shows up, Miami's best bet is to the outside. Helllo, Wildcat! Whatever speed Jenkins is at, the Dolphins would be smart to take their two-headed running attack to the edges. Jenkins, slow as he's been, is still an excellent side-to-side space filler who can move quickly between the tackles on good days. Best not to test him.
Instead, expect the Dolphins to use their Wildcat offense for quick access to the outside lanes. When these two teams met in September, the Dolphins had not yet employed the formation, and now seems as good a time as ever. This is a playoff game; no use holding anything back.
The Wildcat gives Ronnie Brown the opportunity to strike up the middle when it fancies him, but against the Jets expect to see him pitching to Ricky Williams around the ends where the Jets have been particularly vulnerable lately.
5. The Safe Man vs. The Reckless Wreck. Interesting quarterback matchup, beyond the obvious. On one side you have a career play-it-safe guy, Pennington, who's about to top his career high for passing yards while coming close to his best efforts in completion percentage (67 percent) and touchdown-interception ratio (plus-10). By all measures, he's getting better at ball security. His seven interceptions, for example, are second-fewest among 15-game starters.
On the other side you have a guy, Favre, who started out as a loose cannon and has only gotten looser since. Favre's 19 interceptions, an NFL high, are slightly above his career average; his sack numbers are way up (has anyone noticed his new Rex Grossman-inspired method of evasion: running straight backwards?) and his yards per game numbers are at a six-year low. Even his upside has deteriorated. He'll finish the season with less 20-plus yard plays than in every year since the '92 campaign, his first as a Packer. If those trends continue on Sunday, things look bleak for the Jets.
Pennington gets the win, 23-21, but Brown and Wiliams do most of the legwork. Based on what I saw two weeks ago in East Rutherford against the Bills, the Jets aren't stopping anyone in what should be nippy weather. In that game, Marshawn Lynch was gashing the Jets until Dick Jauron decided to throw his job away. Tony Sparano is smart enough to have seen that, only he won't let up.
The predictions don't stop there. After the game, Laveranues Coles says what he's been waiting 17 weeks to say: Favre was never going to work as a Jet. (Can you blame him? The guy watched Favre short-arm something like six balls against Seattle last week, a few of them off the backs of defenders. Then, with everything on the line, he finally throws a catchable ball? I wouldn't have been expecting it, either.) Favre takes about a week to announce Retirement: Part Deux. (No tears this time.) Mangini gets a slap on the wrist, but no pink slip. And finally, in a move I've been calling for months, Mike Tannanbaum enters the Matt Cassel derby.