The final wild card in the AFC is up for grabs as the Miami Dolphins (5-6) travel to face the New York Jets (5-6) in what is essentially a playoff eliminator. The winner will get to .500 and have an inside track in the crowded wild-card race. The loser will take a major step back with four games remaining.
Which AFC East team will win this crucial game? ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker and ESPN Jets reporter Rich Cimini weigh in.
James Walker: The Dolphins and Jets will square off twice in December and it looks like both games will be meaningful. I think the common link between these teams has been general inconsistency. The Dolphins started 3-0 in September but are 2-6 since. Their season has been hanging by a thread for quite some time with uneven play on the field and controversy off it, thanks to the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying scandal. Sunday is the kind of game that could make or break the rest of Miami's season.
Rich, the Jets have been just as inconsistent, losing three of their past four games. How vulnerable are they?
Rich Cimini: Pretty vulnerable, James. When you can't score, you're vulnerable in my book. The offense has produced only one touchdown in its last 31 possessions with Geno Smith at quarterback -- yet he remains the starter. I really believe the Jets have reached a crossroads. A win over the Dolphins could springboard them into the final quarter of the season. If they lose their third straight, it could break them. Frustration is building in the locker room. They're at the tipping point.
The Dolphins aren't lighting up scoreboards, either. What's the deal with their offense?
Walker: The Dolphins can't run, can't pass, can't block and can't score touchdowns with any consistency. At times you see flashes in one or two areas. For example, quarterback Ryan Tannehill finally hit a couple of deep balls to receiver Mike Wallace last week, which hasn't been the case all season. If those two can make some big plays each week, the Dolphins have a chance to score more points. But the offensive line has been an issue all year, and it's not helping that they lost two starters in Incognito and Martin. The line has allowed 44 sacks and the running game is 26th in the NFL. The red-zone offense also has been horrendous. The Dolphins haven't scored more than 27 points in a game all season. That's why they are in close games nearly every week.
Rich, Rex Ryan's stock has been all over the place this year. He was projected to be a lame duck in the preseason. Then, a solid start improved his job security. Where does Ryan currently stand?
Cimini: Personally, I think Ryan is doing a good job, considering the circumstances -- turnover-prone rookie at quarterback, second-rate talent at the skill positions and seven new starters on defense. New general manager John Idzik has been complimentary of Ryan in the few interviews he has given, but no one really knows what he's thinking. If the Jets finish with at least seven wins, I think Ryan will be back. He ended the past two seasons on three-game losing streaks, so he obviously has a problem finishing.
I'll shoot the coach question back at you: Is Joe Philbin toast?
Walker: That's a tough question, Rich. There are so many factors involved, such as the future of general manager Jeff Ireland and the NFL's ongoing investigation of Martin's accusations. If Philbin and his coaching staff had any knowledge of the Martin situation -- and that's a big question -- it could lead to his demise. There is more to it than X's and O's. This would be a scandal that happened on Philbin's watch, and the NFL's findings will weigh heavily with Dolphins owner Stephen Ross.
But strictly on the field, most coaches get three years to implement their programs. A strong finish by Philbin makes a case for him to stay. Ireland is almost certain to be let go if the Dolphins do not make the playoffs. That could lead to the new general manager wanting to pick his own coach or going the Jets' route, where the holdover coach gets one more year to prove himself.
Finally, Rich, why is this Jets team so much better at home? It cannot be only due to the home crowd.
Cimini: You're right, James, it's more than the home crowd. I can't figure it out. It's weird because in the first two seasons under Ryan, they were a mediocre home team and very good on the road. Now they've flipped the script. You can't say they've feasted on an easy home schedule because they beat the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots. Go figure. I will say this: They benefited from a couple of fortuitous calls at home, including the rare "push" penalty by the Patriots while attempting to block a Jets field goal attempt. Most of all, their defensive line has dominated at home -- 21 sacks in five games, holding opponents to an average of 78 yards on the ground. The old saying "defense travels" doesn't really apply to the Jets.