While most of the country was cooking Thanksgiving dinner, Mike Wallace was feasting on the Jugs machine.
A national holiday wasn’t going to get in the way of Wallace’s post-practice routine. He was the last one off the field Thursday afternoon, catching another 250 balls from the machine.
“Got to,” Wallace later said. “It’s our job. It’s our job.”
Know what else is his job? Getting the Dolphins over their six-year hump and into the playoffs. When the Dolphins signed Wallace to a $60 million contract in early 2013, they did so, in large part, to be the difference in December games.
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December begins Monday, and for the Dolphins (6-5), it begins a five-game closing stretch that leaves no margin for error. They must win at least four to reach the postseason, and almost certainly must sweep the rival Jets, who host the Dolphins in a nationally televised showdown Monday night.
Does Wallace put it on himself to be the difference between a special season and just another Dolphins disappointment?
“Of course,” he said. “It’s now or never. If we want to be the team that we want to be and go to the playoffs, it’s the only time we can do it. We don’t have any other time that we can do it. We’ve got to put it on ourself. Every single player on the team has to. We have to step up, play better than we have before. Every single player has to take their game to the next level. I’ve just got to do my part.”
Wallace has done his part in 2014, but in a way foreign to both him and anyone who has seen him play. The Dolphins brought him in to take the top off defenses, but this year he’s caught just seven passes of 20 or more yards — tied for 50th entering Sunday’s games.
Another stat to illustrate how upside-down this year has been: Wallace could set a career-high in touchdowns (he has seven through 11 games), and yet also set a career-low in yards per catch (he’s on pace to do so, averaging just 12.3).
He’s gone 13 games since his last 100-yard performance, the longest such stretch since his rookie season.
But he’s also a major reason why the Dolphins are on pace to score their most points since Dan Marino’s fourth season — and nearly 100 more than they did a year ago.
Wallace has had to adjust to his third offensive system in as many years, one that doesn’t rely on single players but instead spreads the ball around. No Dolphins player is on pace to go over 1,000 yards receiving, but they might have four with at least 500.
Wallace has on several occasions expressed irritation with how the offense has played — even once after a double-digit Dolphins win. But he has never once ripped either his quarterback or coaching staff in the press.
“We’re a new team,” Wallace said. “We’ve got a couple new pieces that we needed on our team. I think guys, we just know. We were in the same situation last year ... where we could have won the last two games and made it to the playoffs. We know it’s pretty much the same situation. We have to win basically all or four out of five of our games. We know that. The rest of the world knows that.”
If there was ever a revenge game, this is it. A win over the irrelevant Jets in Week17 last year would have put the Dolphins in the playoffs. Instead, they got embarrassed at home, a collapse that likely cost general manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman their jobs.
The Dolphins have had to wait 11 months for a rematch, which has the added intrigue of being played under the lights. This is the 13th all-time Monday night meeting between the Dolphins and Jets, third-most in NFL history.
It will be the third time in as many weeks that the Dolphins are in a showcase game. The Broncos loss last weekend was made available to most of the country, and scored one of the biggest ratings of the year.
Those watching saw a talented, aggressive Dolphins team twice lead the defending AFC champions by 11 points, only to blow it in the fourth quarter. The week before Miami defeated Buffalo in a Thursday night game.
“All losses are frustrating,” defensive end Cameron Wake said, “but we’re going to change that this week.”
The Jets, despite their 2-9 record, aren’t bereft of talent. Rex Ryan’s defenses will always be among the best the league, and a few weeks back, New York managed to hand the Steelers at the time their only loss since Oct.12.
The Jets rank seventh in yards allowed (324.8) and tied for eighth in yards per play allowed (5.3). But New York’s 19 turnovers have led to far too many short fields, and as a result, the Jets have surrendered 303 points — third-most in the league entering the weekend. The Jets are an atrocious minus-12 in turnover margin; only the lowly Raiders are worse.
Then there’s Geno Smith, the on-again, off-again, and now on-again starting quarterback. The Miramar High graduate has won just one game since spoiling Miami’s season in last year’s finale, and his 67.4 passer rating is second-worst among the 32 opening-day starting quarterbacks (Matt Cassel is 32nd at 65.8).
This is a game that the Dolphins should and must win. They’re favored by a touchdown. But it’s also a game in years past that Miami has found a way to lose.
“This is the great thing, this is a great opportunity,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “I told them [last week], we have a great opportunity. ... Really good football teams play their best football in December, and I’m confident that we are going to play an excellent game in New York.”