Dolphins secure improbable AFC East title with win over Jets

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Chad Pennington was in the opposing locker room at the stadium where he spent the first eight years of his NFL career, a big smile peeking out from a gray Miami Dolphins "Division Champions" cap.

"It's always a sweet feeling to be a champion," the Dolphins' quarterback said after beating the New York Jets 24-17 on Sunday. "That's what we are: AFC East champions. It's a great feeling. This organization has been unbelievable. They accepted me from the get-go. This has been an unbelievable ride."

Sparano has Dolphins focused

Tony Sparano, this tiger of a coach, wants everyone to know that old is old and new is new, that the Dolphins he has molded into AFC East champions reached the postseason by applying laser focus on what lurked ahead, write Thomas George. More ...

And an improbable one at that.

Pennington, cut in the offseason by the Jets to make room for an aging Brett Favre, threw two touchdown passes against his former team and helped the Dolphins (11-5) complete a remarkable turnaround.

"It's not a revenge factor," Pennington said. "This week, being the 17th week, it was strictly focused on winning the championship, knowing that we controlled our own destiny. It just so happened that it had to come through New York. That's the only way fate would have it."

One year after going 1-15, the Dolphins joined the 1999 Indianapolis Colts as the only teams in NFL history to make 10-game improvements. Miami, under first-year coach Tony Sparano, has won five straight games and nine of its last 10 in making the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons and winning its first AFC East title since 2000.

"I don't think words can describe it," Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown said. "Earlier in the season, we could only imagine being in this situation."

And now, Miami (11-5) will host the Baltimore Ravens (11-5) in the first round next Sunday (1 p.m. ET).

"Around this time last year, we were going home with no return," Dolphins wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. said.

Meanwhile, Favre and the Jets (9-7) were left to wonder what happened to them -- and what's to come.

After an 8-3 start and being mentioned as possible Super Bowl contenders with an NFL-high seven Pro Bowl selections, New York went into a tailspin by losing four of its last five games -- with Favre looking every bit a 39-year-old quarterback.

"The hardest part is the finality of it," Favre said, "especially when you expect to go on."

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Whether Favre goes on remains to be seen. Monday, he said he'll have an MRI exam on his ailing right shoulder, saying it would affect his decision on whether he'll come back for another season. Favre said he has been feeling discomfort in the shoulder for quite some time.

"It hurts in the back (of the shoulder), hurts down in the biceps and, occasionally, in my neck," he said. "Other than that, it's fine."

If this truly was it for Favre, who has yet to announce his plans, it wasn't a pretty ending. The 18-year veteran was 20-of-40 passing for 233 yards and one touchdown, but he also threw three interceptions.

It's also uncertain whether Jets coach Eric Mangini will return for a fourth season, although he said he believes he will.

Four downs

» The Dolphins won their first division title since 2000 and earned their first playoff berth since 2001.

» Miami's 10-win increase from last season ties the 1999 Indianapolis Colts (13-3 after going 3-13 in 1998) for the biggest turnaround in NFL history.

» The Jets lost four of their last five games.

» Jets QB Brett Favre threw two touchdown passes and nine interceptions in his last five games.

"We have never discussed it throughout the course of the season," he said," but that's my anticipation."

Meanwhile, Pennington, who went from the scrap heap to an MVP candidate, finished 22-of-30 passing with 200 yards and touchdown throws to Ginn and Anthony Fasano. Phillip Merling also returned an interception 25 yards for a score.

"We were able to change this around with a good coach who came in with pride and passion," Ginn said. "We got a great quarterback, and our D stepped up for us. That's all you could ask for."

The Jets took a 17-14 lead on Leon Washington's 10-yard touchdown run and a two-point conversion early in the third quarter after taking advantage of a special-teams mistake by the Dolphins. Punter Brandon Fields couldn't handle John Denney's high snap, and the ball bounced behind him before he fell on it at the Miami 28.

Facing a third-and-14 at the 32, Favre connected with Jerricho Cotchery for 15 yards to keep the drive alive. After a 7-yard run, Washington went up the middle for 10 more and a touchdown. Cotchery then caught a pass in the front of the end zone on the two-point conversion.

But Miami came right back with a six-play scoring drive, with Fasano making a twisting, turning, 20-yard touchdown catch in the end zone to put the Dolphins ahead 21-17.

Dan Carpenter kicked a 48-yard field goal into the wind, making it 24-17 with 9:20 left in the game.

Miami took a 14-6 lead by scoring twice in a span of 15 seconds late in the first half on Ginn's 27-yard catch with 2:18 remaining and Merling's interception return.

"(It's) disappointment more than anything," Washington said. "From the beginning of December, we had a chance to control our own destiny, and that's where you want to be at. We didn't take advantage of the opportunities that we had."

Notes:Dolphins tight end David Martin took a blow to his head in the first quarter and didn't return. ... Jets linebacker David Harris left after injuring an ankle in the second half. ... The Jets had won the last five meetings with the Dolphins. ... New York RB Thomas Jones had just 23 yards on 10 carries, but he still finished the season as the AFC's leading rusher with 1,312 yards.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.

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