Dolphins-Jets a big-stakes game early on

September 20, 2012

DAVIE, Fla. — There's a guy wearing green who Wednesday actually put the Dolphins and playoffs in the same sentence.
No, not the Dolphins shade of green, the Jets one. The surprising declaration came from New York quarterback Mark Sanchez.
"If he plays well, that team can make it to the playoffs," Sanchez said about Miami rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
So now we have yet another reason why there's suddenly a big-game feel surrounding Miami's game Sunday at Sun Life Stadium against the Jets. Might other people actually be talking playoffs if the Dolphins can register a win to get to 2-1?
Keep in mind this is a Miami outfit that has had losing records in three straight seasons and five of the past six. It's a team that looked dreadful during a 0-4 preseason and got humbled 30-10 in the regular-season opener at Houston.
But then the Dolphins rose up last Sunday at home against Oakland, outscoring the Raiders 28-3 in the second half in a resounding 35-13 win. Yes, the Raiders had played the previous Monday and had to fly east to play a 1 p.m. ET game. But it still was a big win.
Now, Miami has a big game, which hasn't happened all that much in recent seasons. With all four AFC East teams, including the Jets, at 1-1, a win would guarantee at least a share of first place and give the Dolphins a 2-1 start (they haven't been 3-0 since 2002) for just the second time in seven years.
"There's a lot riding it on it," Dolphins defensive tackle Randy Spears said. "Start 2-1. That's two games in a row. We have a chance to have a nice winning streak. It all starts this game. First place on the line."
Considering Miami started last season 0-7, two in a row would be a nifty winning streak.
There are other reasons the game has a big-game feel for the Dolphins. The Jets are their biggest rival and the game marks the return of New York offensive coordinator Tony Sparano after being Miami's head coach the previous four seasons.
And throw in former University of Florida star Tim Tebow, who will bring in extra fans to a stadium that rarely has a sellout. So what if those fans wearing Tebow jerseys won't be rooting for the Dolphins.
"I think that if there were ever a big game to start the season, this is as big as it gets for us," Dolphins running back Reggie Bush said.
Bush helped turn it into a big game by rushing for 172 yards against the Raiders, the second-best effort of his seven-year career. That earned him AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
The only better rushing game Bush has had was 203 yards last December at Buffalo, when he also won the AFC award. Interestingly, that was the first game the Dolphins played after Sparano was fired following a 29-32 run.
But Sparano is back. And the Dolphins know he's putting in extra hours this week to try to get a win in his return.
"I'm sure he'll have a little chip on his shoulder," Starks said. "So it's a big game."
The Dolphins, though, also have some revenge on their minds. It was last October that Tebow, in his first start of the season at quarterback, led Denver to a 18-15 overtime win at Miami after the Broncos had trailed 15-0. It started a flurry of comebacks Tebow had last season.
Tebow, New York's backup behind Sanchez who comes in to run the Wildcat offense, won't play as much as he did in last season's game. Nevertheless, the Dolphins will be ready.
"Our job is to force him to not make big plays," defensive tackle Paul Soliai said. "Last year, we saw what he could do with the ball."
Wide receiver Brian Hartline had a quip about Tebow on Wednesday. He was asked if he's surprised at all the publicity Tebow gets as a backup quarterback, including being on magazine covers.
"That's you guys," Hartline said of the media. "How much everybody loves him. I think that's the outside world, how much everybody loves him. The same thing can go with the Kardashians. I don't know what they did either. They're on every cover everywhere."
But before what Hartline said could be regarded as bulletin-board fodder, consider Hartline went on to say how Tebow 'won a lot of football games' at Florida and won in Denver last season. Hartline said that gives him 'validation.'
As for Sunday being a big game, Hartline doesn't deny it. Because the Jets are a rival, Hartline said "there's just a little more umph to it."
New York has been a bigger rival for Miami in recent years than vice versa. The Jets, after all, made it the AFC Championship Game after the 2009 and 2010 seasons, and New England clearly has been their biggest recent rival in the AFC East.
Still, Sanchez talked up the Jets-Dolphins clash. Maybe that's because he's gone just 2-4 against Miami in his previous three seasons.
"It's a street fight out there," Sanchez said.
If the Dolphins can win this rumble, Sanchez's talk of them being a playoff contender won't sound as ridiculous.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at or on Twitter @christomasson