Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington denies his return to the Meadowlands is about retribution or redemption or reliving the past, even if he was cast aside by the New York Jets like a leaky football.

Instead he says the game’s solely about the future: whether the Dolphins will be in the playoffs next week for the first time since 2001.

With a victory Sunday over the Jets, the Dolphins (10-5) win the AFC East. With a loss, Miami falls short of the playoffs and must settle for the considerable consolation of a remarkable turnaround from last year’s 1-15 fiasco.

The Jets (9-6) are also in contention to win the division, compounding the drama. And a compelling subplot is the chance for Pennington to beat the team that released him in August in favor of Brett Favre.

“They say revenge is a dish best served cold,” Dolphins receiver Brandon London said. “I hear it’s going to be pretty cold in New York.”

Pennington appreciates the appeal of a script that might be rejected by Hollywood as too corny, and he says he always expected the final game of the regular season to be important. But he says it’s less personal than the opener, which the Jets won in Miami despite Pennington’s two touchdown passes.

“As fate would have it, this is how sports always works out,” he said. “This situation doesn’t surprise me; I pretty much banked on it. . . .

“Will there be some emotions? Sure. You’re going back to the Meadowlands, where you played eight years. But I just don’t think it will be to the magnitude of the season opener, when the situation was so fresh.”

Pennington became the Jets’ starter in 2002 and led them to three playoff berths. But he was criticized for his arm strength and durability, had a on-again, off-again relationship with Jets fans and lost his job at midseason last year.

When Favre became available, Pennington became expendable. He welcomed a fresh start under a new Dolphins regime led by former Jets coach Bill Parcells, and quickly became a leader on a team desperate for direction.

Teammates affectionately refer to him as coach Pennington. His cerebral demeanor is a counterbalance to the Dolphins’ other locker-room leader, fiery linebacker Joey Porter. And his work ethic set the standard for a team that has come to pride itself on a no-frills, no-stars, blue-collar approach.

Coach Tony Sparano was in his office on the team’s day off last week when he tried to reach Pennington.

“I needed to get in touch with him, and I called him and he says, ‘I’m downstairs in the film room,’ ” Sparano said. “When it’s Week 16 and your quarterback is there at 4 o’clock on his day off, that tells me an awful lot.”

Pennington has done much more than set an example and is a leading contender for the league’s MVP award. Working with an ordinary receiving corps, he ranks second in the NFL to San Diego’s Philip Rivers in passing and directs an offense that has committed only 12 turnovers.

He’s coming off one of his best games, throwing for three scores in frigid, windy weather and directing an 8 1/2-minute touchdown drive in the fourth quarter to win Sunday at Kansas City, 38-31.

“Under the conditions that he played last week, that’s one of the best performances I ever saw,” said Dolphins offensive coordinator Dan Henning.

Pennington, who will play in all 16 games for only the second time, has thrown for a career-high 3,453 yards with only seven interceptions. It’s well-documented in Miami and New York that Favre has thrown for fewer yards in more attempts with a league-high 19 interceptions.

As the Dolphins’ 13th starting quarterback since Dan Marino retired, Pennington is easily the best. More to the point this week, at age 32 he’s playing better than the 39-year-old Favre.

And Pennington’s team has one more win, which is his bottom line.

“I’ve never seen anything mean so much to someone as winning means to him,” Dolphins center Samson Satele said. “He wants to show everybody the Jets made a mistake. He wants this team to win so bad. The guy works like he’s fighting for a job.”

With a contract that runs through 2011, Pennington is entrenched as Miami’s starter regardless of the outcome Sunday. As the Dolphins prepare for their first meaningful season finale in six years, they know where they’d be without him.

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