It’s the Jets. Need we say more?
Doesn’t matter what the records are. Doesn’t matter how you got here. When the Dolphins and Jets get together, it’s always been, shall we say, a little bit different.
You might think that wouldn’t be the case this year, what with so many first and second year players on the Dolphins’ roster. I mean how much could they know about a rivalry that goes back to the old AFL?
Well, I’m here to tell you that word travels fast, that there’s still a Bobby McCain and a Reshad Jones and a Walt Aikens in this locker room, players who have been around long enough to understand what this rivalry is about. They, among others, are the messengers. Listening, though, is one thing. Experiencing it is something altogether different.
That’ll come Sunday afternoon at Hard Rock Stadium and for over half this Dolphins’ team it will be their first taste of a rivalry that will take place for the 108th time, the Jets coming in with a slight 54-52-1 edge.
“I’ve been talking to the younger guys,” Aikens said. “I want to make sure they understand that this is a rivalry with a great history. In any game, you always have to bring a lot of energy. But against the Jets, well, it’s extra special.”
McCain has been talking it up as well, though in his case he understands you have to experience it to appreciate it.
“They’ll find out,” McCain said. “Just like I did.”
For me, I’ve been fortunate enough to have covered about 80 of these games and I can tell you first hand that while the Patriots and Bills are certainly formidable rivals as well, there’s always been something about the Jets that makes this series unique.
Maybe it’s because of how the fan bases overlap, so many New Yorkers relocating to South Florida. We know how intense that can get.
Or maybe it’s because of all the remarkable games that we’ve seen over the years: A.J. Duhe’s three interceptions in the 1982 AFC Championship game; Dan Marino’s fake spike in 1994 and the Monday night miracle comeback back in 2000 when the Jets scored 30 fourth quarter points, winning 40-37 in overtime, just to name a few. There have been some great Marino shootouts, come classic defensive games and down-to-the-wire moments dating all the way back to Bob Griese vs. Joe Namath.
But while it’s fun to look back and reminisce about the history of this series, this Sunday is about the here and now, about two teams desperately in need of a victory and wanting to add their own memorable modern day chapter to this long-standing rivalry. See, until you play in a few of these games you just don’t know.
Like so many other Dolphins-Jets games, this one is filled with its own set of enticing subplots, none more attention getting than Jets’ coach Adam Gase returning to face his former team. Truth is, though, most of Gase’s former players with the Dolphins are now playing elsewhere. In fact, well over half this team never played a down for Gase.
The subplots that really matter, though, are the ones that will unfold in front of us for three-plus hours Sunday afternoon. Here are five that quickly come to mind:
- Win the turnover battle: It is the overriding reason, Coach Brian Flores says, for these last two losses to the Bills and Steelers. The Dolphins have forced three turnovers all season. Their opponents have forced 17. In a sport where so many statistics can mean so many things, this is the one statistic that must be reversed to beat the Jets.
- Pay close attention to Le’Veon Bell: The Dolphins have struggled against the run this season, giving up more than 160 yards a game, so you know they'll get a heavy dose of Bell Sunday afternoon. If he has success, they’ll keep calling his number over and over. Said Flores, of Bell, “he can lull you to sleep a little bit, sitting in the hole, waiting for the blocks to develop and the next thing you know it’s a 28-yard gain.” But if you slow him down, if you get him before he finds that second or third gear, you’re going to force the Jets to beat you some other way, and that’s what you want.
- And then make Sam Darnold uncomfortable: The pass rush is the next priority on defense, a pass rush that has produced just nine sacks in seven games, five of them by Taco Charlton. Darnold has been known to force some errant throws in the face of pressure. You get to him early, you make him hesitate an extra second, and good things usually happen. Darnold has thrown seven interceptions in the last two games. What more needs to be said?
- Come out better after halftime: This has not been the case this season. The Dolphins have scored just 20 points in the second half all season and none in the third quarter. That’s got to change. It’s got to start with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick who admitted earlier this week, “as I go, this offense will go.” So with that being the case, Fitzpatrick needs to be sharp and consistent. Those first half touchdown drives are nice, but he needs to be even better – the whole offense, for that matter -- in the second half.
- Make one or two more critical plays: Doesn’t sound very complicated, does it? But as Flores goes through the tape each week, he sees a similar pattern: His team is competitive. They play well in stretches. But when it’s time to win the game, when a play needs to be made on either side of the ball that could carry the day, the Dolphins just haven’t stepped up. “We need to start making those plays,” he said. Can think of no better time for that than Sunday afternoon.