Even the most cynical Jets fans, the same ones that were screaming for the other shoe to drop when the Jets raced out to an 8-3 start, could not have imagined this scenario: Former Jet Chad Pennington returning to the Meadowlands with an opportunity to lead the Dolphins to an improbable turnaround while sending his old team into a monumental collapse.

The thought is enough to make any Jet fan cringe, even those who watched the 1998 Jets stroll into Denver for the AFC Championship game and painfully see a 10-0 halftime lead slip away. Or those fans who stood confidently as Al Groh led the 2000 Jets out to a 9-4 record, only to see dreams of a playoff berth die as New York dropped the final three games of the season.

This year was supposed to be different for the Jets, especially after dishing out $140 million this offseason on revamping the roster and then following up their spending spree by making possibly their most noteworthy trade in the franchise’s 48-year history. The Jets suddenly had an NFL legend at quarterback and a return trip to the playoffs seemed well within reach.

Who could have imagined this mess? It still is too early to write the obituary for the 2008 Jets, a team that could turn from most lovable to most infamous in franchise lore, but it is getting close. The same Jets that once looked Super Bowl bound with consecutive road victories over the rival Patriots and undefeated Titans in November are set to fall flat on their faces unless Mangini can work his magic like it’s 2006 again.

With the playoffs suddenly just a slim hope, it is unpredictable which Jets team will show up tomorrow. Will they be the same team that raced out to a 14-3 first half lead in a Dec. 14 win over the Bills or will they resemble the same lifeless group that was downtrodden in snowy Seattle last week? The way 2008 has played out for the Jets, the answer will likely be revealed in the waning minutes of tomorrow’s matchup.

During the past week, the Jets have looked exasperated and suddenly out of answers for their struggles. In Favre’s weekly press conference, the 39-year old quarterback that has often been recognized for his easygoing attitude in times of struggle appeared beaten down. The Jets had been delivered their wakeup call one too many times and last week’s loss to Seattle hit them the hardest. Even as the Jets lost consecutive games with the Broncos and the 49ers, New York held its hat on the fact that they remained in control of their own destiny and only themselves could end the playoff hopes. However as the Jets’ destiny slipped out of their own hands, they knew they had dropped their opportunity.

“It hurts a lot to think about how hard you work, all the work you put in throughout the season,” running back Leon Washington said yesterday. “That’s the thing that is the most disappointing thing for me. We missed out on some opportunities. We have one more game left in the season and that’s when the NFL is a funny business, a lot of things may happen that you don’t expect to happen.”

Mangini said yesterday that the Jets have delivered a “great week” of practice and the team has been “spirited” but the true Jets will be revealed tomorrow at 4:15 p.m. If the Patriots defeat the Bills and thus place the Jets further on the brink of a collapse, Gang Green would be hard pressed not to be a little tight. Take it from a 14-year veteran to suggest that scoreboard watching will be difficult to avoid.

“It’s pretty hard not to look up and see what is going on, but we understand what is at stake,” cornerback Ty Law said yesterday. “We have to do the best that we can to concentrate on what we do and not get too concerned about what is going on.”

*Mangini surely has his players focused on winning, but the Jets resemble a team that has been beaten down over the past month. The Jets have not played a complete game since their victory over the Titans on Nov. 23 and it will be considerably difficult to turn on the engines for tomorrow’s matchup with the Dolphins. Pennington is turning in a career season and the Dolphins have featured a complementary attack on both offense and defense that Mangini always aspires to have. The Jets will put up a fight with behind the home crowd and with a playoff berth still at stake, but the Dolphins are the better football team right now…Dolphins 23, Jets 20

*If the Jets want to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006, they will need to beat the Dolphins and then hope for either the Patriots to lose at the Bills or the Jaguars to defeat the Ravens in Baltimore.

As for the Patriots, Pro Bowl defensive end Richard Seymour is questionable for tomorrow’s game due to a sore back. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi (knee) is out while defensive backs James Sanders (abdomen), Lewis Sanders (groin) and defensive end Ty Warren (groin) are also questionable. The Patriots have escaped for much of this season with costly injuries which creates the argument that this season could be Bill Belichick’s best job of coaching since joining the Patriots, but a injury-depleted defense could run into some problems tomorrow. As poorly as Buffalo (7-8) has performed for much of this season, the team has not quit. Last week Buffalo walked into a hungry Broncos team vying for the AFC West title and the Bills escaped with a 30-23 victory. Two weeks ago, the Bills outplayed the Jets on the road but quarterback J.P. Losman fumbled a win into the Jets’ laps.

Quarterback Trent Edwards is expected to start again tomorrow and Marshawn Lynch will lead a rushing attack that has averaged 112 yards per game, but it’s difficult to see the Patriots dropping this opportunity. Belichick is the master motivator that Mangini aspires to be and he will surely have his team focused in a raucous environment. Quarterback Matt Cassel has also proven to be cool and collective in the the most tense situations…Patriots 31, Bills 21

*The Ravens defense is performing at the level displayed during their Super Bowl run in 2000 and tomorrow they will have the Jaguars offense to feast on. Quarterback David Garrard enjoyed a career season in 2007 (18 touchdown passes, three interceptions) and was rewarded with a $60 million contract, but he’s plummeted back to Earth. Garrard has thrown 14 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions but the Jacksonville offense has sat in the middle of the pack for the entire season. The Jaguars only average 19 points per game (24th in NFL) and have no legitimate threat on offense aside from running back Maurice Jones-Drew.

Tomorrow will easily be rookie Joe Flacco’s biggest game of his career but don’t expect him to get flustered. Flacco will receive opportunities to throw the ball deep, but the Ravens dominant defense will get to decide the final outcome. Baltimore has only allowed 246 yards per game (2nd in NFL) and is sure to thrive on a pumped home crowd. The only way the Ravens drop this matchup is if Flacco gives it away…Ravens 17, Jaguars 9

*No I do not envision the Jets making the playoffs and tomorrow could prove to be one of the darkest days for the franchise, but as Washington preached yesterday, “a lot of things may happen that you don’t expect to happen.” The Jets stuck themselves in this mess and tomorrow we will see if they can get themselves out of it.

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