Injuries to their intended starting quarterbacks have forced the Oakland Raiders and Miami Dolphins to make midseason changes at the position, but both teams have shown they're able to adjust on the fly.
The AFC West front-running Raiders will take a stab at their first four-game winning streak in nine years with Carson Palmer again under center in Sunday's suddenly-challenging assignment against a Miami team that's enjoyed a mild resurgence of its own with Matt Moore at the controls.
Oakland appeared to be in dire straits when No. 1 field general Jason Campbell sustained a fractured collarbone in a mid-October victory over Cleveland, but made a bold and daring move to upgrade the spot by shipping two high draft choices to Cincinnati to acquire Palmer, a two-time Pro Bowler with a pair of 4,000-yard seasons under his belt who had been sitting out the season due to a dispute with Bengals owner Mike Brown, just two days after Campbell went down.
The veteran signal-caller had a rocky start to his Raiders career, throwing six interceptions in back-to-back losses to division members Kansas City and Denver, but has since done his part to justify the high price the team paid for his services. Palmer has racked up at least 299 passing yards on two occasions during Oakland's three-game tear while significantly reducing his turnover total, and most importantly has lent a measure of experienced stability that had been lacking following Campbell's injury.
"He's been a great addition for this team not only offensively, but for the whole team in general," Raiders tight end Kevin Boss said of Palmer. "He's been a great leader for this young team."
Oakland's rebound, which continued with last week's hard-fought 25-20 decision over NFC contender Chicago, has the Silver and Black at the head of the pack in the AFC West entering the season's final five weeks. At 7-4, the Raiders hold a one-game edge on surprising Denver for first place.
The Raiders haven't won four in a row since their last postseason appearance all the way back in 2002, a year in which the franchise finished 11-5 and eventually reached the Super Bowl.
Miami's playoff dreams were quickly shattered after a frustrating 0-7 start that triggered rampant speculation about head coach Tony Sparano's job security, but enter Sunday's clash just one point away from carrying a string of four consecutive wins into the contest.
The Dolphins righted the ship with three straight lopsided triumphs over Kansas City, Washington and Buffalo to begin November, in which a reinvigorated defense yielded no touchdowns and a combined 20 points. The streak did come to an end with a 20-19 Thanksgiving Day defeat to NFC East-leading Dallas, with the Cowboys netting the deciding score on a field goal as time expired.
Moore has played a key role in Miami's turnaround as well, with the failed onetime Carolina Panthers starter having compiled an excellent 7-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and completing better than 67 percent of his attempts in the last four games.
"I think he's playing well," said Sparano of Moore, who was pressed into duty in the wake of Chad Henne's year-ending shoulder separation the impending free agent suffered in a Week 4 setbacks at San Diego. "I really think that he's done a tremendous job along with his coaches of grasping the offense and really starting to feel comfortable back there. He practices really hard. He practices with a good purposes and he's getting better."
Moore has helped direct the Dolphins to wins in each of their last two home tests following a dismal sequence of 12 losses in 13 Sun Life Stadium outings dating back to last season.
Oakland, meanwhile, has been one of the NFL's top road teams in 2011, having amassed a stellar 4-1 mark as the visitor this season while prevailing in each of their last three away tilts. The Raiders have left with a loss in five of their last six trips to Miami, however, and also came out on the wrong end of 33-17 decision against the Dolphins at the Coliseum last season.
The Raiders hold a 16-13-1 advantage in their regular-season series with the Dolphins, but Miami has won seven of the last eight non-playoff meetings between the teams following their above-mentioned 16-point road win during Week 12 of the 2010 campaign. The Dolphins also registered a 17-15 verdict over Oakland at Sun Life Stadium in 2008, in which kicker Dan Carpenter booted a go- ahead field goal with just 38 seconds left, to avenge a 35-17 home loss to the Silver and Black the previous year.
Oakland has come out on top in three of its four lifetime matchups with Miami in the postseason, having bested the Dolphins in AFC Divisional Playoff contests held in 1970, 1974 and 2000. Miami's lone playoff win over the Raiders came by a 27-10 score in the 1973 AFC Championship held at the Orange Bowl.
Sparano has gone 2-0 against the Raiders during his tenure in Miami, while Oakland's Hue Jackson has never faced either the Dolphins or Sparano as a head coach. The two men worked together on the staff of the Washington Redskins in 2001, with Sparano then that team's tight ends coach and Jackson in charge of the running backs.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Though Palmer (1212 passing yards, 6 TD, 8 INT) has provided a boost to the passing game with his strong arm and pocket presence, the Raiders have still been a run-first team after the quarterback switch. Oakland has produced the third-most rushing attempts and fourth-highest yardage total on the ground (149.2) this season, and has run for 150 yards or more in seven of its 11 games. Jackson has remained committed to that philosophy even with dynamic running back Darren McFadden having been sidelined the past four weeks with a nagging foot sprain. Backup Michael Bush (668 rushing yards, 20 receptions, 7 total TD) has more than carried the load in his absence, with the fifth-year bruiser averaging 107.8 rushing yards and over 25 attempts during that stretch, and is line for more extensive work with McFadden likely out another week. The receiving corps has been hit by injuries as well as of late, with promising rookie Denarius Moore (24 receptions, 4 TD) and speedster Jacoby Ford (17 receptions, 1 TD) both missing the Chicago game with ankle and foot ailments, respectively. Ford, who burned the Dolphins for 108 yards on just four catches in last year's bout, won't be active this week either, while Moore figures to be a game-time decision. Former first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey (35 receptions, 1 TD) and the notoriously-brittle Chaz Schilens (14 receptions, 2 TD) loom as the top candidates for Palmer's passes on Sunday, with versatile fullback Marcel Reece (16 receptions, 2 TD) also in the mix after recording team bests of five receptions for 92 yards last week.
A Miami defense that's displayed marked improvement over the course of the season should be ready for the Raiders' physical ground attack, as the Dolphins rank seventh in the league against the run (97.5 ypg) and are yielding a scant 72.2 rushing yards over their last five matchups, the second-lowest amount in the NFL during that span. The surge has been keyed by the inside linebacker tandem of Karlos Dansby (68 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and Kevin Burnett (68 tackles, 1.5 sacks), with the duo helped out by the ability of beefy nose tackle Paul Soliai (21 tackles) and end Randy Starks' (26 tackles, 1.5 sacks) to tie up blockers at the point of attack. The pass defense has been better lately as well, with the Dolphins having garnered six interceptions over the past three weeks after snaring a mere two in the first eight games. Cornerback Vontae Davis (28 tackles, 2 INT) has come up with two of those picks and reclaimed his standing as the secondary's top cover man after missing considerable time earlier on with a hamstring injury, while second-year lineman Jared Odrick (15 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT) has accumulated three sacks over a four-game stretch as a needed pass-rushing complement to 2010 All-Pro outside linebacker Cameron Wake (26 tackles, 6.5 sacks).
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Like the Raiders, Miami's goal on offense is to impose its will on its opponent by pounding the ball on the ground, though it hasn't been as effective at doing so as the team it will face on Sunday. Lead back Reggie Bush (567 rushing yards, 35 receptions, 5 total TD) has averaged only 3.1 yards per carry over the past three weeks and may be showing signs of slowing down from his largest workload since 2007, while young cohort Daniel Thomas (431 rushing yards, 8 receptions, 1 TD) hasn't made much of an impact since returning from a hamstring injury after impressing early on in his rookie campaign. The pair combined for a pedestrian 86 yards on 24 attempts against Dallas' sturdy run defense on Thanksgiving, forcing the Dolphins to rely more on Moore (1607 passing yards, 8 TD, 5 INT). The 27-year-old managed to throw for a season-best 288 yards and hit on a few big passing plays, most notably a 35-yard touchdown strike to Brandon Marshall (59 receptions, 850 yards, 3 TD) that put Miami in front in the third quarter. The talented wide receiver finished the day with 103 yards on five catches, his third 100-yard output in Moore's seven starts, while fellow wideout Brian Hartline (24 receptions, 1 TD) added 77 yards on four grabs in one of his most productive games of the season. Slot man Davone Bess (36 receptions) has been more of an afterthought in the offense this year after two straight seasons of over 75 catches, but the Oakland native came through with 111 yards on six receptions in last season's win over the Raiders. Moving the chains has been an issue throughout the course of the year, as the Dolphins have converted a just 30.7 percent of their third-down opportunities (29th overall), and they went a lackluster 3-for-12 in that department in the Dallas game.
Miami may find some more room to run on an Oakland defense that's surrendering 135.3 rushing yards per game (27th overall) and a league-worst 5.3 yards per carry, and the unit was bullied for 172 yards on the ground by the Bears a week ago. Compounding matters is the uncertain status of middle linebacker Rolando McClain (57 tackles, 2 sacks), who was arrested on assault charges on Wednesday stemming from an incident in his Alabama hometown. In the one game the 2010 first-round draft choice has missed this year, the Raiders gave up 299 rushing yards in a Week 9 loss to Denver. Oakland has been a tougher team to throw on in 2011, having limited enemy quarterbacks to a meager 52.3 completion rate that's second best in the NFL, and intercepted Chicago's Caleb Hanie three times while generating four sacks in last Sunday's victory. The Raiders' 32 sacks in 11 games are the sixth-most in the league this season, with outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (45 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT) and tackles Richard Seymour (25 tackles, 6 sacks) and Tommy Kelly (31 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 1 INT) accounting for most of the damage, while fleet-footed cornerback Stanford Routt (34 tackles, 3 INT, 10 PD) has been the headliner of a secondary that's generally performed solidly.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Bush vs. Miami's run defense. Though last week's result proved the Raiders can still win when their potent ground game isn't clicking, with Palmer throwing for 301 yards against a Chicago defense that was intent on stopping Bush, their offense is at its most formidable when the running backs are churning out yards at a prodigious pace. That'll be a challenge this week, though, as the Dolphins have held four of their last five opponents to 85 rushing yards or fewer, a primary reason for their recent success.
Moore has done an admirable job of taking care of the football lately, tossing just two interceptions in his last six starts, but goes up against an Oakland squad that's racked up six picks over the past two weeks and is very skilled at pressuring the passer. Protecting him properly will be critical for Miami's chances of winning, as the Dolphins are 0-7 this season when allowing three sacks or more, and an efficient day from Bush and Thomas would surely help the cause as well.
Red zone performance. Both of these teams were brutal offensively in this area last week, with the Raiders settling for Sebastian Janikowski field goals on four of five trips inside Chicago's 20-yard line and the Dolphins failing to net a touchdown in four such possessions against Dallas. Miami still may hold the advantage here thanks to a defense that's yielded touchdowns on just 36.1 percent of drives in the red zone, the second-best mark in the NFL. Oakland, on the other hand, is 27th in that category (60.6 percent).
The Raiders have gotten their act together after a two-game midseason stumble that coincided with Palmer's transition, and their ability to both win on the road and in close games -- something the Dolphins have had a lot of trouble doing this season -- are definite pluses. On the flip side, Oakland's poor performance in the red zone against Chicago could be a major red flag in a tightly-played contest, especially when considering how stingy Miami's defense has been in giving up points lately, and a cross-country trip followed by an early start against a team that's had a few extra days to prepare after playing on Thanksgiving also seems to work to the Dolphins' advantage. Both teams can make a strong case to be the choice here based on their recent body of work, but non-contending Miami has actually been more mistake-free and fundamentally sound than the first-place Raiders, who play a riskier style and can be very prone to penalties. All those factors could have a say in the final outcome.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Dolphins 27, Raiders 23