Not many expected the New York Jets to be playing meaningful football in December, but here we go: A game that could define their season.
A win over the Miami Dolphins means they enter the fourth quarter of the season in prime position for a wild-card berth. A third straight loss would signal yet another late-season collapse, triggering the Rex Ryan Watch.
"All these teams are fighting their tails off to get a seed," said guard Willie Colon, alluding to the six teams vying for the final wild-card spot. "If we don't start moving the train, it's not going to be the outcome we want."
Both the Jets and Dolphins are 5-6. This amounts to a knock-out game, a 1 p.m. kickoff Sunday at MetLife Stadium. What to watch for:
Let Geno play: It'll be interesting to see how offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg plays this. Instead of coaching not to lose, he needs to entrust Geno Smith with an aggressive game plan that accentuates his downfield passing ability. Will he? Probably not.
Based purely on the stats, the Jets probably will opt for a conservative, run-oriented attack. The Dolphins still have some talented big bodies up front, but their run defense has slipped this season (4.2 yards per carry, 20th in the NFL) -- an invitation for the Jets. The Dolphins are better when the ball is in the air (14 interceptions), so Mornhinweg probably will be hesitant to let the turnover-prone Smith sling it too often. Plus, they could be without injured wide receivers Jeremy Kerley (elbow) and Santonio Holmes (hamstring). Mornhinweg had better be prepared to adjust, though, because the Dolphins will load the box, daring him to throw. They'll blitz, too. Why not? Smith's QBR against five or more pass rushers is 13.0, second-lowest in the league.
Jets secondary vs. Mike Wallace: The Jets don't need Fireman Ed in the stands; they need their future Hall-of-Fame safety to be Fireman Ed on the field. Ed Reed, yet to make an impact, has a vital role, especially if CB Antonio Cromartie (hip) doesn't play. Wallace, the Dolphins' $60 million wide receiver, was a disappointment for 10 games, but he produced a season-high 127 yards and a touchdown last week against a good Carolina Panthers defense. Turning point or aberration?
The Dolphins will go after the Jets' embattled secondary, which has struggled against the deep ball. They need Reed to step up and put out the fire; that's why he's here. He's familiar with Wallace from their days in the AFC North. QB Ryan Tannehill has two dangerous options in Brian Hartline and Wallace, whose average target distance is 15.0 yards, the second-deepest among wide receivers with at least 50 targets. The Dolphins are out to prove that the Tannehill-to-Wallace connection isn't a bust; the Jets can't let that happen.
A post-Thanksgiving feast: The Jets' defensive line should dominate. Tannehill, playing behind a second-rate offensive line, has been sacked a league-high 44 times. The return of C Mike Pouncey will help, but they're still down two starters -- LG Richie Incognito and RT Jonathan Martin, the two principles in the bullying scandal. The Jets already have 32 sacks, two more than last season.
This should be a showcase for DE Muhammad Wilkerson, who has a career-high 10 sacks. He also has forced opposing blockers to commit five penalties for 50 yards, according to NewYorkJets.com. The problem is, there have been games in which the defensive line was dominant (see last week), but the Jets still lost because the secondary failed to hold up its end. You can bet the Dolphins will try everything (i.e. quick throws) to neutralize the pass rush.
Battle of the Bookends: The offensive line struggled last week against the Baltimore Ravens' edge rushers, Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs. They face another formidable outside tandem in Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon, each of whom has 6.5 sacks. LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson and RT Austin Howard will have to bring their A game. They also need to keep an eye on Jets killer Randy Starks, who has been known to wreck Jets' screen passes. The big fella has four career interceptions, including two of Mark Sanchez in 2011. It would help if the Jets' backs stepped up in pass protection.
Who will choke? You have to figure this will be a close game. Consider: Four of the Jets' five home games have been decided by seven points or less. (They only get blown out on the road.) The Dolphins' entire season has been built on tight games. In fact, they've had eight games decided by four points or less, only two shy of the most in a single season over the past 10 years. They're 4-4 in those games. Chances are, this will come down to the fourth quarter, with perhaps the game -- and each team's season -- riding on a single play. The team that functions best under those circumstances will win.