Coach Mangini stares in the background
Rookie running back Leon Washington helped the New York Jets celebrate a Green & White Christmas in Miami. Washington's 64-yard fourth quarter reception set up Mike Nugent's 30-yard field goal with 10 seconds remaining as the visitors claimed a 13-10 victory Monday night over the Dolphins at a saturated Dolphins Stadium. The 9-6 Jets can stamp an AFC Wild Card entry Sunday with a win over the 2-13 Oakland Raiders at the Meadowlands.
"That last play there was the biggest play of his young career," said first-year Jets head coach Eric Mangini of Washington. "I am proud of him for that."
The Washington dramatics followed a game-tying 25-yard Olindo Mare field goal. With the teams knotted at 10, New York quarterback Chad Pennington dropped the ball off to Washington and the 5'8", 202-pound back took control from there while leaving helpless defenders all over the field. He was eventually hauled down at the Miami 16, but the damage was done and Nugent had no problems connecting on the clutch kick.
For the second time this season, the Jets were involved in a scoreless first half. There wasn't much room to breathe for either offense in a defensive struggle. Both Jets punter Ben Graham and Dolphins punter Donnie Jones kicked six times apiece over the opening 30 minutes. Players on each side had difficulty holding onto the ball at times as this contest was played in a driving South Florida rain.
"Collectively, there were a lot of things that we had to face and there were a lot of things we had to overcome," Mangini said. "We did it together, and I'm proud of that fact."
The teams traded four punts to start the game, but the Jets got something going on their third possession. Moving from their own 17 to the Dolphins' 16-yard line, the Jets converted three times on third down including a nice Pennington 10-yard scramble and a 28-yard gain from Leon Washington after a shovel pass from the veteran passer.
"Twenty-nine is just unbelievable in space," Pennington said of Washington, who caught four balls for 108 yards. "The guy just makes huge plays for us."
But the visitors couldn't convert a fourth time, bringing the field goal unit on the field. Nugent never got the opportunity to attempt a 34-yard field goal because punter Ben Graham couldn't handle the water-logged ball and the first quarter ended 0-0.
Midway through the second quarter, the Dolphins delivered a couple of crunching defensive blows on consecutive plays. Washington grabbed a short floater from Pennington but was driven violently to the ground by defensive back Michael Lehan. Then middle linebacker Zach Thomas laid a punishing crack on Laveranues Coles. The ultra-tough Coles lay motionless on the ground before returning to his feet and the Jets' bench. He was replaced in the lineup by Justin McCareins but returned in the third quarter.
Miami head coach Nick Saban had seen enough of Joey Harrington in the opening half and pulled the fifth-year vet after a seven of 15 performance for 42 yards. Behind center for the Dolphins to start the third period was Cleo Lemon, a third-year vet who had attempted 16 career passes entering this divisional battle. Lemon was almost intercepted on his first possession of the night and the Jets took over and went right to work.
With Coles back in the lineup, Pennington went long to McCareins up the right sideline for a 42-yard gain. Despite bobbling the ball, McCareins eventually collected and more than doubled Pennington's first half passing total in the process. But the drive stalled and the chess match would continue as time ticked down in the third.
It was Graham's eighth punt – a 40-yard boot into the South Florida evening – which was downed by linebacker Brad Kassell at the Miami one-yard line after a fantastic touchback saving deflection by Brad Smith. The Dolphins got a first down but Jones came on for another punt.
Taking over at their own 40, the Jets moved 56 yards on seven plays. Nugent finally put points on the board following forty-two minutes and thirty-five seconds of scoreless action. The critical play on the drive was a 28-yard pass interference call on Yeremiah Bell after the Miami DB knocked down McCareins on a deep ball.
But the score didn't faze the home team. The Dolphins immediately answered with points of their own, grabbing the lead in the tight contest. Lemon stood poised in the pocket and connected with tight end Randy McMichael for a seven-yard score; it was Lemon's first career touchdown pass.
Facing a deficit, the Jets began throwing haymakers off their own. Pennington found rhythm and led an 80-yard march, culminating it on a gorgeous 32-yard pass to Jerricho Cotchery. Pennington completed five of eight for 80 yards on the possession.
Moments later, Donnie Jones got off a poor punt on his tenth attempt. But the Dolphins caught a fortuitous bounce because the ball glanced off backup linebacker Brad Kassell, who was up field blocking. Long snapper John Denney got downfield for Miami and recovered at the Jets' 42-yard line. That turnover set up Mare for a 25-yard field goal. Mare's make created a 10-10 deadlock with 2:09 remaining in the fourth quarter.
"What do you expect? It was a Jets/Dolphins game. It always goes down to the end no matter what the records are," Pennington said. "It was an unbelievable game."
The stage is set for a huge game on New Year's Eve at the Meadowlands. If the Jets can take care of the struggling Raiders, they will return to the postseason.
"They are having some problems, but they still have a good team," said veteran defensive end Shaun Ellis of the Raiders. "They have a good defense and they have some weapons over there, so we have to come ready to play."
*Scheduling Note: Next weekend's game between the Jets and the Raiders on December 31 will kickoff at 1:00 p.m. Eastern at the Meadowlands.