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Jason Taylor was alone in the hot tub in early November, trying to soak away the pain of a brutally disappointing 1--6 start, when the Dolphins' veteran defensive end finally lost his cool. What got the four-time Pro Bowler's temperature soaring was a newspaper article in which former Dolphins guard Bob Kuechenberg and another member of Miami's undefeated 1972 team slighted the current Dolphins, belittling their chances of beating the then undefeated Bears in Chicago that coming Sunday.
When Taylor saw a quote from Kuechenberg that this year's Miami players "do not have a soul," he was livid. "I was screaming, 'Man, this dude can kiss my ass!'" Taylor recalled last week. "I can accept criticism, but don't question my teammates' heart."
Later that day Taylor fired back at Kuechenberg, telling reporters, among other things, that he "needs a hug and a hobby" and insisting that the Bears "can be beaten." Four days later Taylor delivered an even more forceful message, intercepting a pass and returning it 20 yards for a TD and forcing another turnover in a 31--13 upset. He has been on a rampage ever since: Though Miami (5--7) lost on Sunday to the Jaguars 24--10, ending the Dolphins' four-game winning streak, Taylor had another huge game, with 1 1/2 sacks, two deflected passes and three QB hurries.
There's little question that Taylor has been the league's most dangerous defender over the past month. "Oh, my God—he's an animal," says Patriots special teams whiz and backup linebacker Larry Izzo of his former teammate. "We have a lot of common opponents, so I see a lot of him on film, and every week it just gets more and more insane. If he's not the AFC defensive player of the year, I don't know who is."
With 10 1/2 sacks (tied for second in the league behind Carolina's Julius Peppers), a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns (his seven career scores tie him with former Giants end George Martin for the most by a defensive lineman since the NFL started keeping track in 1970), seven forced fumbles and a recovery, Taylor has numbers worthy of consideration.
At 32, Taylor says he's contemplating retirement, but with 103 career sacks—good for 19th on the NFL's alltime list—he's showing few signs of slowing down. He's gotten 86 1/2 of those sacks since 2000, the most in the league in that span.
Indeed, thanks to Taylor, what looked like a lost season has become much more interesting. "We have a chance," he says of the Dolphins' playoff hopes. "But I'll tell you this—even if we were eliminated from [contention], I'd be playing like my hair was on fire. If I had hair."