NFL Preview - Miami (6-6) at Jacksonville (7-5)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Roughly 13 months ago, the State of Florida was a battleground state in the race to become the 44th President of the United States.
Thirteen months later - somewhat less importantly, mind you - another result in the Sunshine State will go a long way toward crystallizing the picture in the 2009 AFC Playoff race.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, a surprise at 7-5 and currently holding the second of two wild card positions in the AFC, will host their down-state compatriots the Miami Dolphins, who can keep the pressure on both their fellow wild card competitors and the AFC East-leading New England Patriots with a win on Sunday.
Last week's 23-18 victory over the AFC South rival Houston Texans was emblematic of Jacksonville's 2009 effort, as there wasn't much to hang onto of a highlight-reel nature, even on a day when the Jags hung on for a win.
Jacksonville built a 17-0 lead early, capitalizing on an injury to Houston quarterback Matt Schaub and a couple of touchdown passes from David Garrard (15-of-28, 232 yards, 0 INT) in order to build the big lead.
Schaub would return, but the hole would be too big for him to dig his team out, and the QB would never touch the ball again after cutting the lead to five on a touchdown pass to Andre Johnson with 4:01 to play.
That's because Maurice Jones-Drew ran the Jags to three first downs on the ensuing drive, the highlight of an otherwise pedestrian 24-carry, 76-yard game for the probable Pro Bowler.
Defensively, linebacker Justin Durant finished with six tackles, a sack, and an interception, winning AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors in the process.
In short, the Jags did what they had to do to win, the type of result that has become common for a Jacksonville squad that has posted each of its last five wins by five points or fewer.
The Dolphins' own close Week 13 win received a bit more publicity, and perhaps rightly so.
When the New England Patriots went ahead, 14-0, on a six-yard run by Kevin Faulk on the first play of the second quarter, it appeared that the Dolphins would recede quietly into the season's final quarter as a nondescript 5-7 team.
But over the next three quarters of the game, the Dolphins went about saving their season, outscoring New England by a 22-7 count the rest of the way in what would become an AFC East-tightening 22-21 victory.
Second-year quarterback Chad Henne had the best day of his young career to date, stepping up to the challenge of a New England defense that dared him to throw, completing 29-of-52 passes for a career-high 335 yards with two touchdowns and a pick.
A Miami receiving corps that had previously been underwhelming stepped up, with Davone Bess catching 10 balls for 117 yards and a touchdown, and emerging rookie Brian Hartline coming up with a critical seven-yard TD pass in the third quarter.
But the bigger story was the Dolphin defense, which changed the momentum of the game on a fourth-down stand in the second quarter, and apart from an 81- yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Sam Aiken in the third, completely shut out New England after the Faulk TD run.
Randy Moss, who seemed to set the tone for the day when he caught a 58-yard touchdown pass from Brady early in the first quarter, had just one reception for eight yards the rest of the way.
The win moved the Dolphins to 6-6 and well within striking distance of New England (7-5) in the AFC East.
Miami is now 6-3 since starting the year with three consecutive defeats.
The Jaguars lead the all-time series with the Dolphins, 2-1, breaking a deadlock in the series with a 24-10 road victory in the last meeting, in 2006. Miami won the previous meeting, taking a 24-10 decision at Jacksonville in 2003. The Jags claimed the lone home win in the regular season series to date with a 28-21 triumph in 1998.
The most memorable meeting between the franchises was a 62-7 win for Jacksonville in a 1999 AFC Divisional Playoff. That game, which saw the Jaguars record the second-most points by a team in NFL postseason history, was also the final appearance in the Hall of Fame career of Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino.
The teams also met during the 2009 preseason, with Miami scoring a 12-9 win at Dolphin Stadium on Aug. 17th.
Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio is 1-1 in his career against the Dolphins, while Miami's Tony Sparano will be meeting both Del Rio and the Jaguars for the first time in a meaningful situation as a head coach.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Despite Henne's breakout game, you can count on Miami trying to move the football on the ground, first and foremost, with the league's No. 4-ranked rushing attack (150.4 yards per game). That means a heavy dose of Ricky Williams (867 rushing yards, 22 receptions, 11 TD), who needs 133 yards to go over 1,000 for the fifth time in his career, but first since 2003. Williams was held to 75 yards on 18 carries by the Patriots. The team's secondary running option was Lex Hilliard (58 rushing yards, 5 receptions), who had five totes for 12 yards, but the team did not feature the vaunted "Wildcat" scheme for even one play against New England. The passing game, meanwhile, showed its ability to be a complementary piece last Sunday, and the team will look to build off of that effort. In addition to Bess (59 receptions, 1 TD) and Hartline (21 receptions, 3 TD), Henne (1847 passing yards, 9 TD, 8 INT) has shown strong chemistry with tight end Anthony Fasano (24 receptions, 1 TD) and wideout Greg Camarillo (32 receptions). Fasano had five catches for 67 yards against New England, his second consecutive five-reception game. The Miami offensive line allowed just one sack of Henne in 54 drop-back attempts last week, and the Jaguars' weak pass rush doesn't figure to give the Dolphins much of a problem there.
Though Jacksonville did a nice job of slowing down the Texans' attack in last week's win, the team's challenge figures to be greater against a Miami offense that could be equipped to expose a couple of key Jaguars injuries. Top cornerback Rashean Mathis (26 tackles, 3 INT) has missed the last three games with a groin problem and is highly questionable to get back on the field, while former Pro Bowl defensive tackle John Henderson (26 tackles, 3 sacks) exited last week's game with a shoulder problem and is another question mark. If Henderson is out of the lineup, it will be up to Durant (73 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack), fellow linebacker Daryl Smith (79 tackles, 1.5 sacks), and a front line possibly anchored by rookie tackle Terrance Knighton (31 tackles) to prop up the league's 11th-ranked rushing defense (103.8 yards per game). Smith had a team-high eight tackles against the Texans, as Houston was limited to 68 yards on 22 carries on the ground. In the secondary, the Jags have done a credible job making up for the absence of Mathis, with unheralded cornerbacks Tyron Brackenridge (21 tackles) and rookie Derek Cox (56 tackles, 2 INT) holding their own, and safeties Gerald Alexander (36 tackles, 2 INT) and Reggie Nelson (56 tackles) making plays behind them. Alexander notched a key end-zone interception of Houston running back Chris Brown last week. The Jaguars have had little in the way of a pass rush this season, but former first-round disappointment Derrick Harvey (39 tackles) did manage his first sack of the year last week. Jacksonville is 23rd in the league against the pass as Week 14 begins (242.1 yards per game).
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
On a day when Jones-Drew (1077 rushing yards, 13 TD, 42 receptions) was held well under 100 yards and top wideout Mike Sims-Walker (52 receptions, 6 TD) was limited to one catch, Garrard had to get creative to move the team in last week's win over the Texans. To his credit, the burly quarterback made use of tight ends Zach Miller (10 receptions), Marcedes Lewis (26 receptions, 2 TD), and ex-Dolphin Ernest Wilford (9 reception, 1 TD) who combined for 132 yards worth of receptions on just six catches, including a 62-yard play to Miller, a 47-yard touchdown to Lewis, and a four-yard TD catch for Wilford. Also active were backup wideouts Nate Hughes (4 receptions, 1 TD) and Mike Thomas (32 receptions), with Hughes scoring his first career touchdown and the rookie Thomas chipping in with three grabs for 21 yards. Garrard (2848 passing yards, 10 TD, 6 INT) has thrown just one interception in his last five games. But the ideal for Jacksonville would be to establish Jones-Drew, who continues to lead the league in touchdowns but has been held under 100 rushing yards in each of his last three games. Garrard has not proven very elusive while working behind a Jacksonville o-line that is perhaps more adept at run-blocking, having been dropped for 32 sacks, including four against the Texans last week. Garrard was sacked in the end zone for a third-quarter safety.
The Jaguars might want to take some shots down the field this week against a Dolphins defense that ranks just 24th in the league against the pass (242.9 yards per game), though as mentioned, Miami did a more than credible job against New England's bevy of wideouts last Sunday. Rookie cornerbacks Vontae Davis (38 tackles) and Sean Smith (33 tackles) will continue to be thrown into the fire despite their relative inexperience, and will need continued help over the top by safeties Gibril Wilson (76 tackles, 1 sack) and Yeremiah Bell (90 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT). Davis, the first-round pick out of Illinois, notched his team-leading third interception of the year last week. Of some concern for Miami is the fact that top pass rushers Jason Taylor (shoulder) and Joey Porter (knee) have both missed practice time with injuries this week. Both Taylor (30 tackles, 6 sacks) and Porter (29 tackles, 7 sacks) played in last Sunday's win over the Patriots, but neither had a sack of Brady. A Dolphins defense that ranks 14th in the league against the run (107 yards per game) has held up OK despite the season-ending knee injury suffered by nose tackle Jason Ferguson last month. Paul Soliai (15 tackles) has done a nice job filling in for Ferguson, Randy Starks (42 tackles, 6 sacks) has been a menace up front also, and inside linebackers Channing Crowder (46 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Akin Ayodele (53 tackles) have worked well behind them. Crowder came up with the game-sealing interception against Brady last Sunday.
A solid number of first-round fantasy playoff results this week will hinge on the efforts of the running backs Williams and Jones-Drew, and there is no major cause for concern relative to playing either man. Williams, in particular, is in line for a big day against a Jacksonville defense that could be without one of its best run-stoppers in Henderson. Elsewhere in lineups, Bess is going to be a frequent waiver pickup this week, and while he'll get his catches, beware that his first 100-yard game and touchdown of the year came last week. Sims- Walker's production has slowed down and he carries major risk against a Miami defense that shut down Randy Moss for the most part last week. One of the underrated plays here could be Dolphins kicker Dan Carpenter, who has had five multiple-field goal outings this season and hasn't missed a kick since Week 2.
Though the Jaguars have far exceeded expectations and have been a nice story through the first 12 games of 2009, what Jacksonville lacks to this point is a truly signature win. A two-point victory against the middling Jets is probably the best thing for Del Rio and company to hang their hats on, and at the same time it's difficult to forget those listless losses to the likes of the Seahawks and Cardinals. Meanwhile, though the Dolphins haven't been consistent, last week's victory over first-place New England offers evidence that this is indeed a strong team. Against a Jacksonville club that is expected to be at less than 100 percent defensively, look for Williams and company to have a good day, and for Jones-Drew and the Jags attack to fail to match them on the other side.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Dolphins 17, Jaguars 13
12/12 16:01:41 ET