- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- There's no such thing as a must-win in Week 3, Darrelle Revis' opinion notwithstanding, but this is damn close. If it's not the most important September game in Rex Ryan's three-plus seasons, it's certainly in the top two.
It's huge because of what happened last week and what looms on the horizon. Quarterback Mark Sanchez is coming off one of the worst performances of his career, a game in which his coaches displayed a lack of faith in him. Now he gets the always-stubborn Miami Dolphins, with a couple of heavyweights up next -- the San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans.
The New York Jets could be another offensive debacle away from a quarterback controversy. The man in charge of making sure it doesn't occur, Tony Sparano, happens to be the former Dolphins coach, returning to his old turf as Ryan's secret weapon.
Sparano's Dolphins beat Ryan's Jets in three of five meetings, with inferior talent, and it drove Ryan crazy. That doesn't include last New Year's Day, when Sparano already had been fired and his old team humiliated the bickering Jets.
Ryan never liked Sparano and his "I'm tougher than you" attitude, but Ryan respected him. "So much that I hired him," Ryan said of his offensive coordinator. Tight end Dustin Keller echoed that, saying, "In my eyes, we took the best piece to their puzzle."
So the Jets have the Dolphins' former brain in their possession, and they also have a more complete team than the Dolphins, a current version of the 2009 Jets -- rookie coach, rookie quarterback. The Jets should win -- unless they play not to lose, which was the case last week in Pittsburgh.
Ryan and Sparano talk effusively about Sanchez's maturity and overall improvement, but they took the ball out of his hands in the final minute of the first half, opting to run out the clock even with two timeouts at their disposal.
That's coaching scared. No matter how they try to spin it, they didn't trust Sanchez -- and the rest of the offense, for that matter. It conveyed a bad message to the locker room. Don't think for a second that sort of thing goes unnoticed.
Sparano is known as a tough and aggressive personality, and he needs to exude those attributes in his play calling. They shined through in the opener, when the Jets beat up the meek Buffalo Bills, but he got away from that style against the big, bad Steelers.
If Sparano gives Sanchez a chance, the Jets should be able to make plays against the Dolphins' young secondary -- assuming Santonio Holmes doesn't pull a repeat of his New Year's Day disappearing/sulking act.
The Dolphins are a front-heavy defense, with a group of proven run stuffers in their new 4-3 scheme, but their back end is vulnerable. Even with Keller (hamstring) out, the Jets should be able to find favorable matchups.
This is Sanchez's first pressure point in 2012. You can't survive too many 10-for-27 days in the NFL, especially not with Tim Tebow lurking in the background. This will be a good test for Sanchez, a chance to show everyone he's significantly better than the quarterback who was such a mess in the season finale that he was intercepted by defensive tackle Randy Starks -- twice. Maybe he should avoid Starks Island.
"I just feel like we're such a different team," Sanchez said. "We're mentally stronger than we were. I think we just have a better group. I think we're prepared to handle this road test."
You can understand a road loss to the Steelers, but it would be a sure sign of trouble if the Jets play poorly and lose to the rebuilding Dolphins. With the 49ers and Texans coming to town, the Jets would be in crisis mode at 1-2.
What better way to build momentum than with a win over the Dolphins? The Jets have dropped five of the last seven meetings -- pause here to scratch your head -- and they embarrassed themselves last time in Miami with the Holmes controversy and the huddle scuffle. (Maybe they should use the no-huddle, like the Dolphins, to avoid any potential confrontations.) A win Sunday would tell the world, "We're not that team anymore."
"It would be nice to go down there and change people's opinions of us," Keller said. "We don't want people to think they have our number. If we can get that turned around, we'd be a lot better off in the AFC East."
If they can't beat the team predicted to finish last in the division, it would be a damning indictment.
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