Commentary

Pennington's magic ride could ruin Jets' season

A victory by Chad Pennington and the Dolphins over the Jets would be the ultimate insult in the marquee matchup of Week 17, John Clayton writes.

Originally Published: December 26, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Brett Favre and Chad PenningtonUS PresswireWhile the Jets' Brett Favre has struggled recently (nine picks in past four games), Chad Pennington has excelled, leading the Dolphins to eight wins in their past nine games.
A year ago, Brett Favre was the toast of the league on a surprising Packers team that won 13 games and went to the NFC title game. Now hampered by a sore shoulder and a Jets team that looks tired, Favre looks like he is toast.

The ultimate insult could come Sunday if Chad Pennington and the Dolphins knock the Jets out of the playoffs. New York discarded Pennington like a dirty towel to embrace Favre as its savior. When the Jets beat the Titans on Nov. 23, they were 8-3 and rolling.

But New York, losers of three of its past four, is on the verge of playoff elimination. Pennington, meanwhile, is battling Antonio Bryant of the Bucs for NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Wouldn't it figure for Jets fans that he would have a career year after being cut?

Playoff picture

• Who's in, who's out and what you need to know about the Week 17 playoff scenarios. Story

Statistically, Pennington has had a better season than Favre. Even though Favre has a stronger arm, Pennington is better in passing yards (3,453 to 3,239) and quarterback rating (96.4 to 84). Favre tops Pennington on touchdown passes (21 to 17) and completions (323 to 299).

While it can't be argued that the trade for Favre has improved the Jets, the fact Pennington is excelling in Miami is a disaster for New York, particularly if it loses Sunday. Eric Mangini's job could be on the line even though he has a chance to post the Jets' second 10-win season in three seasons under his reign.

In some ways, it was a little surprising NBC didn't flex this game instead of the Chargers and the Broncos. Chargers-Broncos is for the AFC West title, but the Jets-Dolphins game features so much more. Depending on the outcome, two playoff spots could be on the line. The Jets, Dolphins and Patriots are vying for the AFC East title. The last wild-card spot is also up for grabs.

Pennington's story in Miami has been magical. He has run an offense that doesn't turn over the ball -- the Dolphins have only 12 turnovers. The last team that did so well protecting the football was Bill Parcells' 1990 Giants. Pennington has seven interceptions this season; Favre has nine in the past four games and leads the league with 19.

The Jets won the first game 20-14 in Week 1 when Pennington was settling in with his new team. Favre threw two touchdown passes in that game, and cornerback Darrelle Revis picked off Pennington to seal the victory.

Since then, the Dolphins have been hot. They've won eight of their past nine games and have a chance to clinch a division title for the first time since 2000. Normally, the Jets dominate the Dolphins. They've won eight of the past nine meetings against them, and Mangini is 5-0 against the Dolphins.

Being at home should be a blessing to the Jets, but they need a good start to keep the crowd on their side. What can't be forgotten is Favre could be playing in the final game of one of the greatest careers in history.

On Wednesday, he admitted his right arm and shoulder are bothering him. Favre didn't say whether he would return next year, but you get the feeling that this is it. He'd like to go out on a playoff team, so the Jets must rally around him.

1. Denver Broncos at San Diego Chargers

The Chargers appeared to be dead when they were 4-8 and trailing the Broncos by three games. But coordinator Ron Rivera has reinvigorated the defense by having linemen occasionally shoot through gaps and mixing in more aggressive blitzes.

With the Broncos' defense overmatched each week, the pressure is on Jay Cutler to pull this game out despite the lack of a running game. The Broncos have put seven backs on the injured reserve list and have to make do with Tatum Bell. The winner of this game will play host to the Colts in the first week of the playoffs.

[+] EnlargeDonovan McNabb
AP Photo/Tom MihalekDonovan McNabb was 25-for-37 for 281 yards and one TD against Dallas in Week 2.

2. Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles

In Week 2, the Cowboys held on to beat the Eagles 41-37 in one of the more entertaining games of the season. At the time, both teams looked like locks to make the playoffs. If Dallas wins, it's in, and the Eagles still have slim playoff hopes

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones doesn't want to fire Wade Phillips, but a 9-7 season filled with December miscues by his players may make him think about it. Donovan McNabb wants to stay with the Eagles, but with two years left on his contract and potential back-to-back nonplayoff seasons, the Eagles might consider trading him if they lose.

The scene to watch, though, could come in the fourth quarter if the Cowboys are losing. They melted down in the final minutes of a road loss to the Steelers, Andy Reid is 15-6 against the Cowboys and he will try to close this regular season with a bang.

3. New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings

Minnesota's Tarvaris Jackson might be the most debated quarterback in the league. Fans love his mobility. Critics question his accuracy. Since coming back in Week 14 after being benched following an 0-2 start, Jackson has thrown seven touchdowns and had a 76-yard rushing day against the Falcons. But Jackson also has four fumbles, including two lost fumbles. Is he ready for the playoffs?

With the No. 1 seed clinched, the Giants will rest starters. Eli Manning might not play the whole game, and Brandon Jacobs surely won't play much past the first quarter. The weird part of the scenario is that if the Vikings clinch a playoff spot, they might have to play the Falcons again and see if Jackson can outduel Matt Ryan.

4. Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints

The Panthers have been playing well, but they can't be satisfied. In Week 16, they were outplaying the Giants on the road but a missed field goal allowed New York to come back and beat them. At 11-4, Carolina has clinched a playoff spot. But if the Panthers lose to the Saints and the Falcons beat the Rams, they could go from the No. 2 seed to the No. 5 seed and need three wins on the road to go to the Super Bowl.

Carolina's talented secondary has struggled recently and is facing Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who needs 402 yards to beat Dan Marino's season yardage record of 5,084.

5. Jacksonville Jaguars at Baltimore Ravens

It probably gives the Ravens confidence knowing that the Jaguars began the offseason evaluation process two weeks before the end of the regular season. Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver revamped his front office by accepting the resignation of Shack Harris, his top personnel man. Coach Jack Del Rio has decided to change strength and conditioning coaches and has assistants wondering if they will be shown the door. The Ravens must beat the 5-10 Jaguars to clinch the fifth seed and play the winner of the AFC East in the first round of the playoffs. Baltimore has won five consecutive games at home against the Jaguars.

6. New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills

Bills owner Ralph Wilson is taking two weeks to review Dick Jauron's season and decide whether to retain him. A win over the Patriots would certainly help Jauron. Buffalo has lost 10 straight to the Patriots, and a win would put the Bills at 8-8 despite playing the league's easiest schedule. Naturally, Jauron will face one of the league's more focused teams. New England must win to have a shot at the playoffs.

7. Chicago Bears at Houston Texans

The Bears must scoreboard watch because they play at the same time as the Giants versus Vikings, a matchup whose outcome will determine if Chicago's efforts are worth anything. In any case, the Bears must win to earn the division title or wild card.

Give Lovie Smith credit for squeezing out a three-game home winning streak to put the Bears in this position. Kyle Orton, despite a sore ankle, has gutted out some close victories. This game will be a matchup of two of the best running surprises in the league, rookies Matt Forte of the Bears and Steve Slaton of Texans.

8. Oakland Raiders at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Last week's loss to the Chargers put the Bucs, losers of three straight, on the verge of playoff elimination. The Raiders really don't have much chance in this one. Departing defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin will put his Cover 2 defense in position to take away the passing of JaMarcus Russell. Russell has four touchdown passes and a 104.3 quarterback rating the past two games, but this figures to be his hardest assignment in more than a month.

9. Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts

What could have been one of the more anticipated games down the stretch is nothing more than a Week 17 preseason game. The Titans have the No. 1 seed. The Colts have the No. 5 seed. Nothing in this game will change that, so Jeff Fisher and Tony Dungy will rest starters as much as they can to get ready for the playoffs.

Peyton Manning, expected to start, needs 93 yards to become the first quarterback in NFL history to go over 4,000 yards nine times. In his past three home games against the Titans, Manning has five touchdown passes and a 112 quarterback rating.

10. Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers

History is on the line here. The Lions could be the league's first 0-16 team if they lose. Maybe a representative of the Pro Football Hall of Fame needs to be present to deflate a game ball and take a scuffed-up souvenir of the moment to Canton. This figures to be Rod Marinelli's last game as head coach, which is a shame because he's such a good guy. The Packers have won eight of their past nine games against the Lions.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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