Instead, he has an opportunity to complete one of the most memorable single-season turnarounds in NFL history and deny his former team a playoff spot as the Miami Dolphins travel to play the Jets with the AFC East at stake on Sunday.
Entering this season, no one could have imagined Pennington would have the Dolphins (10-5) needing only to win this game for their first playoff berth since 2001 and first division title since 2000. After all, he was coming to a team that went 1-15 last year and had been rebuilt by Dolphins vice president Bill Parcells, the former Jets coach and general manager who brought in 45 new players for first-year coach Tony Sparano’s initial 81-man roster.
“This is the only way fate would have it, right?” Pennington said after throwing three touchdown passes in a 38-31 win at Kansas City last Sunday. “I just don’t think it would happen any other way. There wouldn’t be any other scenario. This is how sports works.”
Pennington, who helped the Jets reach the playoffs in 2002, 2004 and 2006, has thrown for 3,453 yards and 17 touchdowns this season, but he’s made just as big an impact off the field in helping change the team’s culture so quickly. A victory would make the Dolphins the second team to improve by 10 wins in a single season, joining the 1999 Indianapolis Colts.
“He brings the guys and the offense together,” said tight end Anthony Fasano, who has caught six of Pennington’s TD passes—three in the last three weeks. “A lot of leadership qualities are what I’ve learned from him, but it’s really within the huddle that matters. It’s the only thing that matters - getting the guys in the huddle and playing right.”
Miami also can clinch a wild-card spot with a tie and a loss by Baltimore to Jacksonville.
While Pennington and the Dolphins are riding a four-game winning streak, Favre and the Jets (9-6) are on the verge of a late-season collapse that seemed unimaginable after a 34-13 win at previously unbeaten Tennessee left them 8-3 and atop the AFC East.
But the 39-year-old future Hall of Famer - the last piece in an aggressive re-tooling by the star-crossed franchise that often plays second fiddle in New York to the Giants - has struggled as the Jets have lost three of their last four games. Favre was intercepted twice in a 13-3 loss at snowy Seattle last Sunday, and they now need a victory and some help to reach the playoffs.
“I’m disappointed, as everyone else in this building is disappointed,” Favre said Wednesday, when he said he was unsure if he would return next season. “The opportunities that were presented to us, we couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity. I’m disappointed because we didn’t capitalize on that, as our fans are, as everyone else is.”
If New York wins and the New England Patriots lose to create a three-way tie with the Dolphins at 10-6, the Jets will be the AFC East champions by virtue of the better division record among the teams. If the Patriots win, the Jets can claim the final wild-card spot in the AFC with a victory and a loss by the Ravens.
“Even at 9-6 and in the position we’re in, all is still not lost,” said right tackle Damien Woody, one of the free agents brought in to rebuild the offensive line. “That’s the whole mantra right now: Let’s put it together for one game and then we’ll see what happens after that.”
Though Favre has six interceptions and a dismal 58.2 passer rating over the last four games, he is not the sole culprit for New York’s late-season struggles.
The defense has given up an average of 365.0 yards during that four-game span while allowing three running backs to top 100 yards. It also failed to register a sack for the second time in four games last Sunday, and the Jets have only five in that span.
“I think we’ve been off-balance a lot,” said defensive end Shaun Ellis, who has a team-high eight sacks but only one in the last seven games. “The sacks were coming early in the year and now we’re struggling to get sacks and get pressures. Those things correlate with the passing game. It goes hand in hand. You can’t give up 200, 300 yards and get sacks with it.”
The Dolphins defense, which allowed 492 yards last Sunday to a Chiefs team that had been inept offensively most of the season, may be without two starters. Linebacker Channing Crowder is still trying to overcome a knee injury that forced him to miss last week’s game and cornerback Will Allen has an undisclosed injury.
The Jets held off the Dolphins 20-14 in the season opener, with Favre throwing two first-half TD passes. Pennington was intercepted in the end zone with 5 seconds left, but the Dolphins are optimistic they can win in New York for the first time since 2003.
“They did what they had to do in terms of making the plays,” Dolphins cornerback Andre Goodman said of the last meeting. “You take away a couple plays in that game and we’re on top of that game.”