EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It is easiest to paint Jevon Holland's remarkable 99-yard interception and return for a touchdown of a Hail Mary attempt -- the Hell Mary. It was immediately dubbed by Jets fans who have seen more than enough -- as emblematic of the Jets' catastrophic season, and nobody would think that was a bad summary.
But the slaloming, will-he-or-won't-he return also says plenty about the Miami Dolphins and their 8-3 season, which has them, for at least two days, as the AFC’s top seed. As Holland picked his way up the field, he saw teammates making blocks -- Christian Wilkins among them.
"As soon as I see the ball in the air, everybody boxing out, I was thinking, 'I need that,'" Holland said. " Scoring on defense is huge."
It was especially huge because it essentially negated an interception of Tua Tagovailoa -- one minute before -- that was also returned for a touchdown, and was an apt reminder of what could make this team dangerous in the playoffs: Even on the occasions when their high flying offense stumbles even briefly, their defense is good enough to pick it up until the offense settles down. They had seven sacks and two interceptions, including Holland's gem, and held the Jets to 159 yards of total offense. In the NFL's first-ever Black Friday game, that was more than enough, with the Dolphins beating the Jets, 34-13.
When this game was put in a featured spot, the schedule makers expected Aaron Rodgers to be leading the Jets. His injury, and the unsightly aftermath these last two months, have given the Jets an unfortunate feature. They may have the greatest disparity between sides of the ball in NFL history -- the defense is very, very good, and the offense is utterly inept. Their stadium was dressed in black in honor of this game, but that was also an unfortunate reminder that there is a funeral feel about this season. The Jets piecing together four wins feels like a miracle, but it also makes it difficult to draw big-picture conclusions about just how good the Dolphins are. They have still not defeated a team with a winning record, but they are also winning the games they have to win to stay ahead of the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East.
Still, the Achilles injury to Jaelan Phillips, who had four tackles and a sack before the injury, is a huge loss to an ascending defense. And Tagovailoa's two interceptions give him 10 this season, two more than he had in the 13 games he played last season. Head coach Mike McDaniel blamed himself for the play calls, but Tagovailoa said it was because he was trying to do more than what was asked, and that he was being too aggressive.
"With that pick-six, it kept them in the game," he said. "I feel good about my game, I'm not satisfied whatsoever about what I'm doing right now. Throughout these late stretches of having these games, going to need better ball from me."
They mostly got that in the second half from the offense as a whole. The Dolphins ran for 115 of their 167 rushing yards in the second half. They were six of seven on third-down opportunities. And their offensive line took over on a nine-minute, 15-play drive that ended with a 13-yard Raheem Mostert touchdown run. That drive, and Holland's return, were the biggest momentum swings of the game, McDaniel said.
McDaniel credited Tagovailoa with how he recovered from his first half. One of the biggest obstacles McDaniel believes his quarterback has had to overcome is his own frustration at his game within the game. It is a sign of progress that Tagovailoa is able to set aside his own frustration -- he was still clearly unhappy with the interceptions after the game -- and function well enough to lead the offense for the rest of the game.
In the meantime, the defense -- which was overshadowed by the explosive offense early in the season -- has blossomed. The run defense, in particular, has improved, and it held New York to just 29 yards rushing, thwarting it in the Jets' early drives, and then forcing them to abandon it entirely because the Jets were playing from behind.
That kind of complementary football is the ideal, no matter the caliber of the opponent. For those looking for a more telling litmus test, the wait may have to continue. The Dolphins have games against the Commanders, Titans and Jets again, before a final three-game stretch against the Cowboys, then at the Ravens, and against the Bills that should give a truer picture of just how complete this team is. The Dolphins were 8-3 last season, too, before losing five games in a row and then losing in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
The difference now is that Tagovailoa is healthy, and the offense, as a result, is even more productive.
"I feel good," he said Friday night. "I feel as good as anyone in the league is feeling in Week 12."
For a team that still has something to prove, that is no small thing. When McDaniel was asked about the trajectory of his defense, he pushed his hand toward the sky. That, too, may be the limit for the Dolphins if they are as complete as the Jets made them look.