8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Miami -7
One of the NFL’s many bitter rivalries renews tonight as the flailing New York Jets host the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands. It sounds odd to say at this juncture of the season, but this is the first of two meetings between these teams on the campaign, with the Dolphins continuing to vie for a Wild Card Birth, while the Jets… well, let’s say that they’re just dragging their carcass to the finish line. With a win tonight, Miami (6-5), will be the first team left out of the Playoffs in the AFC, but don’t let that fool you, for this team could easily be 9-2 at this point. Joe Philbin’s charges have been extremely competitive this season, particularly since their Bye Week back in Week Five. In fact, since that respite, they have put together a 4-3 record, with their four victories coming by an average margin of 19.5 points, while their three losses have come by a combined ten points. Furthermore, those three losses have come against the Packers (24-27), Lions (16-20), and Broncos (36-39), whom collectively own a cumulative record of 26-10. At Denver last weekend, Miami gave the defending AFC Champions everything they could handle, owning a 21-17 lead at halftime, and even led 28-17 heading into the Fourth Quarter, before the Broncos exploded for 22 points to escape with the win. On a snowy day at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, the visitors did a solid job of controlling possession early, but eventually relented to the host’s suddenly reinvigorated ground game, relinquishing a staggering 201 yards on 35 carries. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill played admirably, completing 26-of-36 passes (72.2%) for 228 yards, three touchdowns while rushing for another, but was intercepted late in the final stanza on his own 35-yard line turning the tide for good.
It may not seem like it, but these Miami Dolphins might be the most overlooked good team that the NFL has seen in years. Granted they’re only 6-5, but take a moment to think about this statistic; the 2014 Dolphins are the first team since 2007 to win their first six games by at least thirteen points, with the previous bearer of that distinction being that year’s New England Patriots, who went 16-0 in the regular season before falling just short in the Super Bowl. In his third year on the job, Philbin has quietly built this team into a fringe contender, quite a feat considered all the controversy surrounding the franchise just twelve months ago. But oh, what a difference a year makes, or shall we say, a better Offensive Line? With four new starters on the Offensive Line, the Dolphins have improved by leaps and bounds in the trenches, creating a wave of progression throughout the rest of the team. In 2013, Miami averaged just 19.8 points (26th overall), managing only 90.0 yards via the rush (26th overall) on 4.1 yards per carry (17th overall), but in 2014 have thus far scored 25.9 points (9th overall), while churning out 124.5 yards on the ground (10th overall) on a healthy 4.7 yards per attempt (5th overall). Knowshon Moreno was added during Free Agency to add come explosiveness to the Backfield, but it has actually been the incumbent Lamar Miller who has shined the brightest; Miller has rushed for a team-high 673 yards and five touchdowns on 4.9 yards per carry, while Moreno has missed all but three games this season after landing on Injured Reserve with a torn ACL. And then there is Tannehill, who has absolutely flourished behind better pass protection in this, his third season as the starter. No Quarterback was sacked more times in 2013 than Tannehill, who was dropped for loss a ridiculous 58 times last year, equating to 9.0% of his drop-backs. However, this season he has been sacked just 26 times (5.8% of his drop-backs), leading to career-highs in Completion Percentage (66.1%) and Passer Rating (93.4), while throwing for 20 touchdowns to only eight interceptions. An outstanding athlete, Tannehill actually played Wide Receiver at Texas A&M before making the switch to Quarterback, and has brought a new dimension under center as a rusher, racking up 276 yards with his legs on 6.7 yards per carry, a personal best. Granted, he’s not stretching the field by any means (6.6 yards/attempt), but he has kept drives going; Miami ranks fourth in the league in the lowest percentage of drives without a First Down, with a mere 25.0% ending in a three-and-out. Last season, that figure was a disappointing 39.7%, sixth-worst in the NFL.
Meanwhile, this season can’t end fast enough for the Jets (2-9), who are in store for an Offseason of sweeping change, from the Front Office, to the Coaching Staff, to the Roster on the playing field. Nothing that Rex Ryan has done to stop the bleeding has worked, with the merciless New York Media compounding every problem that has arisen. Simply put, this team has struggled mightily on both sides of the ball, from the unmitigated disaster that has been the Quarterback position, to the typically stout defense which has been ravaged by injuries. We’ll get to the former topic in a bit, but for the time being, we shall stay on the play of the defense, which even a wizard like Ryan hasn’t been able to fix. In 2013, the defensive mastermind was able to mask a lot of their deficiencies with creative play-calling and blitzes, allowing 24.2 points (19th overall) on 335.0 yards (11th overall), including 246.7 yards versus the pass (22nd overall) on 6.3 net yards per attempt (19th overall), along with 88.3 yards versus the rush (3rd overall) on 3.4 yards per carry (1st overall), all the while racking up 40.0 sacks. Considering the personnel he had on offense, and the adverse effect it had on his defense, it was a minor miracle that this team was able to finish 8-8. However, he would not be so lucky this season, as his defense has been basically left for dead by their inept compatriots on the opposite side of the ball; despite allowing the seventh-fewest yards in the league (324.8), and ranking fourth against the run (86.2) and third in yards per carry (3.4), the Jets have relinquished the third-most points overall (27.5), mostly because they haven’t been able to force many turnovers. In fact, Ryan has seen his defense log just seven takeaways thus far, fewest in the NFL, with four of that total coming in their bizarre 20-16 victory over the Steelers three weeks ago. They’ve also been eviscerated in the passing game, with the beleaguered Secondary yielding a whopping 27 touchdown passes, again, the highest total in the league. Cornerbacks Dee Milliner (achilles) and Dexter McDougle (knee) are both on Injured Reserve, while Safety Jaiquawn Jarrett has been hampered with a nagging calf strain.
But hey, give these guys credit for hanging in there, because a lesser defense would have tapped out by now, for they have received little to no help from the offense. In other words, the Jets have been @#$%ing awful on this side of the ball. Through eleven games, they have mustered just 16.1 points (30th overall) on 327.6 yards (29th overall), including 191.1 yards through the air (32nd overall) on 4.7 net yards per attempt (32nd overall), along with 136.5 yards on the ground (5th overall) on 4.7 yards per carry (4th overall). While the tandem of Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson has been productive in the Backfield, the situation under Center has been unspeakably bad, with Quarterbacks Geno Smith and Michael Vick taking turns playing Offensive Sabotage. In his second season as the starter, and the addition of playmakers such as Erik Decker and Percy Harvin to the Receiving Corps, Smith was expected to take a leap forward, but has ended up taking many steps backward. Smith has completed just 57.6% of his attempts for 162.1 yards per game on a mere 6.0 yards per attempt, tossing seven touchdowns to ten interceptions, with six more fumbles lost. He has been benched once already, but due to his successor’s play last Monday against the Bills, was thrust back into action and will once again attempt to lead the offense. But just how long will he last is anyone’s guess. Earlier, we spoke about the Dolphins’ remarkable ability to sustain drives, but as fate would have it, the Jets have festered at the opposite end of the spectrum; New York has seen 38.8% of their drives end in a three-and-out, the third-worst figure int he league. Furthermore, this unit has been plagued by turnovers, committing nineteen through eleven games (20th overall), including a dozen in the first six contests of the campaign. Granted, they have seen marginal improvement on that front, committing seven over the past five outings, but that hasn’t translated into success. Last week coming off a late Bye Week, their only score came on a 27-yard Nick Folk Field Goal towards the end of the First Quarter, with their following nine drives ending in six punts, one of which was blocked, and an interception. In fact, Ryan’s offense would produce just one drive of over 30 yards all game. Between Smith and Vick, Jets’ Quarterbacks were sacked seven times for a loss of 39 yards, and were a terrible 3-of-15 (20.0%) on Third Down. With their third appearance on Monday Night Football this season, get a good look at these Jets while you can, because it’s become a forgone conclusion that most of these guys won’t be suiting up for Gang Green in 2015…