The Dolphins entered Week 17 knowing a win over the Jets would guarantee them a playoff berth. The Jets needed to win and hope for a Ravens loss. Yet New York, in the midst of a late-season collapse, was favored over streaking Miami. After three competitive quarters, the Dolphins pulled away in the fourth. They continued to use their highly effective ball-control offense, while Brett Favre continued to commit turnovers. Now, the Jets have fired their coach and face an offseason of uncertainty. The Dolphins, meanwhile, will attempt to continue their surprising run in the playoffs.
Sunday's game fit the performances of these teams over the course of the season. The Dolphins rank as the sixth-best team in the AFC, according to Football Outsiders' advanced DVOA statistics, while the Jets are eighth. The teams have roughly equivalent defenses, and the Jets are better on special teams, but the Dolphins are much more efficient on offense -- in particular in the passing game.
The irony of the released former franchise player, Chad Pennington, outplaying Favre has not been lost on the bulk of the media. The primary difference between the two players is their tendencies to make mistakes. Favre's age and apparent arm injury have turned him into the same sort of short-passing maestro Pennington has been throughout his career. Favre's average pass this season was actually shorter (8.0 yards through the air) than Pennington's (8.4 yards through the air). As opposing defenses adjusted (and perhaps Favre's injury became more serious), his production plummeted. Favre finished the season with 22 interceptions and threw nine in his final five games. Pennington, meanwhile, threw only seven through the end of the regular season.
One way to see the effects of these quarterbacks' performances is to look at each team's offense on a per-drive basis. On an average drive, the Dolphins outgained the Jets by only a little more than 2 yards, ranking ninth and 11th in the NFL, respectively. The Dolphins, however, had the fewest turnovers per drive, while the Jets ranked 26th. On Sunday, the Jets turned it over four times (three Favre interceptions and a fumble), compared to once by Miami. The Dolphins returned the second interception for a touchdown, the difference in a seven-point game.
Favre's status for next season is, as usual, in doubt. Backup Kellen Clemens has not impressed in limited action. After the firing of Eric Mangini, the new coach might want his own quarterback, which would lead to a complete overhaul. A rebuilding project could really set the Jets back. The starting quarterback, leading receiver, leading rusher and two of the starting offensive linemen are each at least 30 years old. The defense improved with the offseason acquisitions of Kris Jenkins and Calvin Pace but is average (finishing 16th in our DVOA ratings). Still, if the Jets are to make a run in the next few seasons, look for them to be a defense-first team, something they never managed under the tutelage of the defensive-minded Mangini.
Miami has many of the same long-term age concerns as the Jets (primarily on defense), but that won't matter in the next few weeks. The Dolphins' first playoff opponent, Baltimore, handled them easily in Week 7, shutting down their vaunted Wildcat formation. Ronnie Brown was limited to 27 yards on 13 carries, and the Wildcat was effectively useless. Pennington put up good numbers, 295 yards and only one interception, but it was too little too late.
The truth is that despite the lopsided score -- Baltimore won 27-13 -- the underlying numbers hint at a closer game. The Dolphins averaged 6.2 yards per play, compared to 5.9 for Baltimore. Each team turned the ball over once. The big difference in the game was special teams. Ravens punter Sam Koch averaged 55.7 yards per punt on three punts and pinned Miami inside the 20-yard line each time. The special teams disadvantage is very real. The Dolphins ranked 29th in our special teams numbers. The Ravens were 17th, but Koch was the best punter in the league through the end of the regular season.
The Dolphins' second problem against Baltimore was their inability to stop the run. Baltimore running backs ran for 137 yards. In general, the Dolphins struggle to force punts. The defense achieves adequacy by forcing turnovers. When a team protects the ball against them, as Baltimore did, the Dolphins' defense struggles to get off the field. The bad news for the Dolphins is that most of their fellow playoff teams prioritize ball security. Of the other AFC playoff teams, only Pittsburgh ranks outside the top 10 in fewest turnovers per drive.
The one wild card in Miami's chances is the Wildcat. On Sunday, the Dolphins left two potential big plays on the field when they failed to connect on passes to open receivers out of the Wildcat formation. If the Dolphins can generate a couple of big plays out of the formation, they could score enough to overcome the Ravens. The Dolphins likely will be unable to sustain the long drives on which they thrive against such a stout defense.
Baltimore is rightly favored by the oddsmakers, but after going from 1-15 to the playoffs, the Dolphins are not too concerned with the odds. They are the weak link in the AFC playoffs, but they are good enough to beat any of their competitors on any given Sunday.
Ned Macey is an analyst for Football Outsiders.