(SportsNetwork.com) - Few would have seen this one coming three Decembers ago.
When he arrived in New York with over-the-top bravado and instantly transformed the Jets from laughingstocks to two-time runners-up in the AFC Championship Game, it appeared that Rex Ryan would hold the keys to the franchise for as long as he wanted.
Just three years later, though, he may well be in the final throes of a reign gone sour.
The Jets visit Miami's Sun Life Stadium this weekend for a meaningless -- to them, at least -- Week 17 game that will end a third consecutive season without a playoff berth.
While the 8-8 and 6-10 records New York slogged to in the past two years have been somewhat surprising given elevated preseason expectations, the job Ryan has done to get the 2013 team within a game of .500 is considered by some the best coaching exhibition of his five-year stint.
Most preseason forecasts suggested the Jets were a four-win team at best with a rookie quarterback and little in the way of premier talent, but Ryan shepherded them to a 5-4 start that yielded brief playoff scenario chatter before an untimely three-game skid in weeks 11, 12 and 13.
New York rallied to 7-8 with a 24-13 defeat of Cleveland last week, rallying from a 10-point deficit in what might have been Ryan's final home game at MetLife Stadium.
"It's just one of those things where he really cares about his players," wide receiver David Nelson said. "Players appreciate that. Players know and they respect him for that. They believe in him and they respect him and they play hard for him. It's just the mutual respect he gives his players."
QB Geno Smith's 2,856 passing yards are a franchise record for rookies and he scored his fifth rushing touchdown against Cleveland, a total that's second among all NFL passers. He has four passing TDs in his last three games -- after posting just one in his previous five -- and has thrown just two interceptions in his last 80 pass attempts.
Still, his 21 interceptions and 55.3 completion percentage have surely upped Ryan's gray hair ratio, and he was just 4-of-10 for 29 yards in a 23-3 loss to the Dolphins at home in Week 13.
"He needs his time, and I think it's unfair for anybody to step out and say, 'Oh, this kid is not having a great year. Let's look for a new one,'" guard Willie Colon said. "Every player needs time to develop. It's up to us as a team to get better, up to us as a line to do a better job and let the kid grow up. And, I think he's doing that."
For the Dolphins, the finale means a possible gateway to something more.
Though Miami was the site of league-wide scorn following a midseason bullying scandal, coach Joe Philbin returned the team to contention and has it within reach of the AFC's sixth and final playoff berth.
The Dolphins have won four of six since a Nov. 11 loss at Tampa Bay and can secure a spot via a number of scenarios, the simplest of which are a defeat of the Jets and a loss or tie by Baltimore at Cincinnati, or a win against New York alongside a win by San Diego against visiting Kansas City.
"We have to play our best game of the year. It's a great way for us to finish the regular season," Philbin said. "We've got a great opportunity."
Things would have been far simpler had it not been for an inconvenient clunker last week, when Miami traveled to Buffalo and was smothered, 19-0, while compiling just 103 total yards and allowing 203 rushing yards to a Bills team with just five wins in 14 games.
The Dolphins rushed for just 14 yards on 12 carries after exceeding 100 eight times in 14 games and going for 120 against the Bills in a Week 7 contest.
"That's the worst part - we had everything in front of us," safety Jimmy Wilson said. "We knew how important that game was, and to drop it like that without getting points or making impact plays or giving ourselves a chance to win is a big letdown. We just have to get ready for a home game and go ahead and finish our season the right way."
Miami had 125 yards on the ground against New York on Dec. 1.
"Of those 12 carries (against Buffalo), our longest run was 3 yards," offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said. "A lack of productivity in the run game caused me to veer off into another direction."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
A Home Finale?
Veteran safety Ed Reed, a native of Miami who played at "The U" before beginning what's likely to end up as a Hall of Fame career, could be making his final NFL appearance on Sunday with the Jets. He's surged as of late in this, his 12th professional season, and has two interceptions in his last three games -- the first two of his six-game stint with New York. Reed has five career interceptions against the Dolphins, including a postseason meeting while with Baltimore.
Dialing Long Distance
First-year Dolphin Mike Wallace, he of the lucrative offseason contract, enters the regular-season finale in Miami just 95 yards away from recording the third 1,000-yard receiving season of his career -- he went for 1,297 and 1,193 in 2010 and 2011, respectively. The former Steeler has averaged 86 yards per game in three career regular-season meetings with New York, and he had seven catches for 82 yards and a TD in Miami's road win on Dec. 1.
The amount of admiration the Jets players have for Ryan is easy to spot, but the Dolphins have significantly more on the line this week and it's likely the New York surge will stall after securing the win in its own home finale last weekend. If it's anything like the first time the teams met earlier this month, this one will be close and low-scoring, but the home team will find a way.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Dolphins 17, Jets 13