Season five of the Rex Ryan era ends Sunday in Miami. In reality, it could be the final act of a wonderfully entertaining run. The following day, Black Monday, the New York Jets are expected to announce whether he will return for 2014.
The players have spoken. The media have spoken. The embattled Ryan (41-38) has received a groundswell of support.
"It's not like 'Survivor,' where I'm trying to get their vote or something like that," Ryan cracked.
In an attempt to motivate the Jets (7-8), who were eliminated in Week 15, Ryan has made this game a referendum on their entire season. He's playing the "team-on-the-rise" card, hoping to validate his opinion with a season-ending win. Funny, but he's never ended a season with a victory. There were playoff losses in 2009 and 2010, and three-game losing streaks to close the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
Ryan might not be coaching for his job -- upper management probably has made a decision -- but he could be coaching for his next job. The Dolphins (8-7) need a win, and some help, to claim a wild-card berth. Kickoff is 1 p.m. ET at Sun Life Stadium. What to watch for:
1. Manufactured motivation: With no shot at the playoffs, the Jets have lowered their sights, trying to accomplish mini-goals. An 8-8 record would mean avoiding their first back-to-back losing seasons since 1995-96, the Rich Kotite years. A win would provide a small measure of satisfaction after a brutal season on the road; the Jets are 1-6 away from home, including four losses by at least 16 points. A victory also would ruin the Dolphins' playoff hopes, giving Ryan some redemption against a mediocre division rival that has tormented him. He's 3-6 against the Dolphins.
2. Which Geno will show up?: Geno Smith was terrible against the Dolphins in Week 13, resulting in a halftime benching -- the lowpoint of his up-and-down rookie season. Since then, he has played reasonably well, producing six touchdowns (four passing, two rushing) and only two interceptions. The Dolphins' defense is always a tough matchup for the Jets, so this won't be easy. If Smith can finish with another encouraging performance, it could impact how the front office tackles the quarterback situation in the offseason. It certainly would reduce the need to pick a quarterback in the first or second round of the draft. It also would reinforce the belief that Smith is developing in Marty Mornhinweg's system.
3. Many farewells: Several starters could be playing in their final game with the Jets. The top unrestricted free agents are RT Austin Howard, OLB Calvin Pace, TE Jeff Cumberland, RG Willie Colon and PK Nick Folk. Potential salary-cap casualties include CB Antonio Cromartie ($14.98 million cap charge in 2014) and WR Santonio Holmes ($10.75 million), an absolute goner after another injury-plagued season. S Ed Reed and TE Kellen Winslow, one-year rentals, also will be bidding adieu after this game. Turnover is part of the NFL, but it will hit hard for the Jets as they enter phase II of John Idzik's rebuilding program.
4. Keep an eye on the kids: Smith has been the focal point of the rookie class, but it's important that others finish on a positive note, especially CB Dee Milliner. The oft-criticized first-round pick is coming off his best game, and now he faces another challenge. Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline are trying to become the first Dolphins receiving tandem since Mark Clayton and Mark Duper (1991) to record 1,000-yard seasons. Milliner got roughed up in the previous matchup, as did Cromartie, so this will be a good test to gauge improvement. Struggling LG Brian Winters is in the same boat as Milliner. If Winters plays well, the Jets should be able to run against the Dolphins' 25th-ranked rush defense.
5. What happened to the 'Sons'?: Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson are the main building blocks in the front seven, but their sack production has gone south in recent weeks. In fact, they've combined for only a half-sack over the past four games. They should feast on Ryan Tannehill, the most-sacked quarterback in the league -- 58 sacks. He was overwhelmed last week by the Buffalo Bills, who killed the Dolphins with DB blitzes from the slot. Tannehill (knee) showed up on the injury report and was seen limping in practice throughout the week. His beleaguered offensive line could have a new starter, with Nate Garner likely to replace rookie Sam Brenner at left guard. It should add up to a big day by the Jets, but we also thought that last time and they barely got a hand on Tannehill.