|Tom Gannam / Associated Press|
|The Dolphins may not have the stars their competitors boast on offense, but Chad Pennington and Co. have produced.|
Through 13 games apiece, the Jets, Patriots and Dolphins are tied and tangled with 8-5 records atop the AFC East. Each team has striking strengths, unmistakable weaknesses and a clear shot to win the division.
Only the Jets and Dolphins enjoy a chance to outright win the prize by finishing 3-0. Since they meet on Dec. 28 in Giants Stadium in their regular-season finale, the division could well be decided in a winner-take-all, theatrical summit.
The Jets have the most home games (two) remaining. But Miami has the best streak going (4-1 in its last five games), and its final three opponents own the worst combined record (15-24). New England has championship experience that helps it know how to finish.
Which team will win the AFC East?
Here are five categories that help unveil the undisputable favorite:
Yards gained per pass attempt
Several football observers insist that the most important statistic in the game is yards gained per pass attempt. This statistic indicates an offense's ability to gain big pass plays.
"This statistic is still No. 1 in importance, not only that you gain the big pass play, but also that you prevent them," said Bud Goode, 85, who for the last 51 years has provided NFL statistical data to teams and various subscribers. "NFL defenses are built to force an offense to make mistakes over long drives. Huge chunks of yardage allowed on big pass plays kill that plan and make defenses scramble."
Quarterback Chad Pennington is known more for his accuracy than for being a deep threat. But Pennington is doing his job in stretching the field and five Dolphins average more than 13.4 yards per catch.
A team that is stout against the run is usually a team that has true heart, one that embraces the physical nature of football and its severe trench warfare. Thus far, the Jets have been best at exhibiting this trait.
The addition of nose tackle Kris Jenkins has given the Jets nearly immovable beef in their run defense. And linebacker Eric Barton has cleaned up with a team-high 95 tackles.
Simple. The fewer points you allow, the better your chances at victory. NFL coaches for many years have insisted that defenses should not be ranked by how few yards they allow (as they currently are) but by how few points they allow. For many coaches, this is the only stat that matters to their defense.
The Dolphins in six of their last seven games have allowed 19 or fewer points.
Every NFL coach before and after every game preaches turnovers. Cannot commit them. But have to force them. They preach that turnovers change field position and scoring chances and momentum.
And the Dolphins, easily, are best at this task.
Four Dolphins have two interceptions and linebacker Joey Porter has complemented Miami's turnover success with a league-high 16.5 sacks. The Dolphins have committed only four lost fumbles and six interceptions.
This statistic reveals which team has been most dominant and is potentially most dominant. And that would be the Jets.
They have beaten both divisional champions Tennessee and Arizona by 21 points. They clubbed the Rams by 44 points.
The combined analysis says that Miami should win this division. Of these five categories, the Dolphins lead in three: Yards per pass attempt, scoring defense and turnover differential. Those three areas cover both offensive and defensive strengths and indicate that the Dolphins not only have more balance among the three leaders but also more punch in this three-game AFC East sprint.
Goode, however, offers a final, twisting thought.
"I would say the Jets should win it and it's been that way for awhile this season," Goode said. "Their defensive numbers when run through analysis indicate they have made enough defensive strides to overcome their other deficiencies. So, look for the Jets and also look for a Titans-Giants Super Bowl with the Titans winning by one point. Funny, but going into Week 14, it was the same Super Bowl teams with the Giants winning by one point."
That may be what the latest numbers reveal, but this is the frenzied NFL. Oftentimes the top becomes the bottom. And the bottom the top. And if the Dolphins indeed win the AFC East after a 1-15 season a year ago, look no further.