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NFL Preview - Miami (5-5) at Oakland (5-5)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Plenty of parallels exist between the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders, two teams that will face another at the Oakland Coliseum this Sunday in a Week 12 tilt that holds a great deal of significance for each.
Both the Dolphins and Raiders enter this week's play with identical 5-5 records and are attempting to rebound from lopsided losses in their last games, and there are quarterback issues to sort out among the two sides as well.
Miami's problems under center stem from injuries that knocked both reestablished starter Chad Pennington and recently-demoted backup Chad Henne out of a 29-17 victory over Tennessee on Nov. 14. Third-stringer Tyler Thigpen was pressed into duty when the team hosted Chicago just four days later, but failed to provide a spark in a 16-0 loss to the Bears.
Making his first start since 2008, Thigpen completed 17-of-29 passes for a non-threatening 187 yards and was intercepted once and sacked six times as Miami produced its lowest offensive output of the season. The Dolphins finished with just 187 total yards as a team and were a troubling 1-for-11 on third-down attempts.
Henne, who hurt his left knee against the Titans, has taken part this week's practice sessions on a limited basis and is a possibility to return to action for Sunday's pivotal matchup, although Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano has been mum as to whether he or Thigpen will start. Pennington is out of the equation after being placed on injured reserve with a dislocated shoulder following the Tennessee game.
Whoever will be taking the snaps for Miami won't have top target Brandon Marshall to throw to, however, as the standout wide receiver is expected to miss Sunday's contest after straining his right hamstring in the Chicago loss.
Oakland's quarterback quandary is a result of performance, with an ineffective Jason Campbell having been pulled in the third quarter of last week's forgettable 35-3 defeat at Pittsburgh in favor of understudy Bruce Gradkowski. Neither was able to get the offense going, as the Raiders managed a mere 182 total yards and converted only 3-of-14 third-down tries.
Campbell, who had led Oakland to three consecutive wins prior to a Week 10 bye that preceded last Sunday's debacle, will start against the Dolphins but figures to be on a short leash with Gradkowski, who had supplanted his counterpart as the primary triggerman earlier in the season before spraining his shoulder in mid-October, now fully mended from his injury.
The Raiders fell out of a first-place tie in the AFC West with the loss, with rival Kansas City gaining sole possession of the division's top spot with a Week 11 triumph over Arizona.
Miami, which is presently faced with a two-game deficit in the race for the conference's final Wild Card spot, hopes a trip out West provides an opportunity to get back on track. The Dolphins have been one of the league's best road teams this year, having posted a 4-1 record as the visitor so far in 2010.
Oakland has been equally as tough in its own building, however. The Raiders are 4-1 at home this season and have prevailed in their last three bouts at the Coliseum, which includes key wins over division members Kansas City and San Diego and a 33-3 thrashing of NFC West front-runner Seattle in Week 8.
The Raiders have not won four straight home games since Nov. 17, 2002-Sept. 28, 2003.
The Raiders hold a 16-12-1 advantage in their regular-season series with the Dolphins, but Miami has won six of the last seven meetings between the teams. The Dolphins rallied for a 17-15 home victory when the clubs last faced off back in 2008, with kicker Dan Carpenter booting a go-ahead field goal with 38 seconds left, and have emerged triumphant in each of their last four visits to Oakland. The Raiders haven't beaten Miami at the Coliseum since 1996 and last defeated the Dolphins via a 35-17 verdict in South Florida in 2007.
Oakland has prevailed 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 in the 1973 AFC Championship.
Sparano is 1-0 all-time against the Raiders, while Oakland's Tom Cable lost his only head-to-head encounter with Sparano and Miami.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Although nothing's been said out of the Dolphins' camp, early indications suggest that Henne (2140 passing yards, 9 TD, 11 INT) will attempt to give it a go on Sunday. That can be taken as somewhat good news, since the third-year pro should be an upgrade over the sporadically-accurate Thigpen, but Henne had been enduring some struggles of his own prior to getting hurt. In his most recent start, the former University of Michigan star threw three interceptions in an Oct. 24 loss at Baltimore that prompted Sparano's decision to use Pennington the following week. With Marshall (58 receptions, 693 yards, 1 TD) likely unavailable, sophomore Brian Hartline (39 receptions, 1 TD) steps into the No. 1 receiver's role after a five-catch, 70-yard outing against the Bears, with the dependable Davone Bess (49 receptions, 3 TD) maintaining his duties out of the slot and tight end Anthony Fasano (26 receptions, 3 TD) a candidate for increased looks under the revised format. Then again, Fasano may be called upon to block more considering an injury-plagued offensive line's poor pass protection in the Chicago game. Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long will again play through a reported torn labrum in his shoulder but was beaten for three sacks by the Bears' Julius Peppers, and the front wall opened up few holes for running backs Ronnie Brown (454 rushing yards, 3 TD, 21 receptions) and Ricky Williams (401 rushing yards, 9 receptions, 2 total TD), with the pair mustering a paltry 11 yards on six carries in the loss. The anticipated return of center Joe Berger, who sat out last week's game with an injured knee, should help in both areas.
Miami's going to need to get its problems up front quickly sorted out, as the Raiders have been quite adept at pressuring the passer throughout this season. Oakland is tied for fourth in the NFL with 29 sacks and took down the quarterback 15 times during its recent three-game win streak, with outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (36 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and end Matt Shaughnessy (36 tackles, 5 sacks) leading the charge from the outside and tackles Richard Seymour (41 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Tommy Kelly (37 tackles, 5 sacks) lending a strong interior push. That stout rush has helped Oakland hold opponents to a 54.2 percent completion percentage, the second-best mark in the league, as well as the third-fewest passing yards (193.2 ypg). The presence of shutdown cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (11 tackles) has contributed to those strong numbers as well, and the three-time All-Pro plans to be back in the lineup Sunday after missing the past two games with an ankle sprain. A run defense anchored by Seymour and rookie middle linebacker Rolando McClain (49 tackles, 0.5 sacks) is allowing a suspect 128.5 yards per game (25th overall), but the group did hold Pittsburgh back Rashard Mendenhall to 59 yards on 23 attempts.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Oakland's strength on offense is a multi-faceted running attack that's generated the second-most rushing yards in the NFL (152.1 ypg) and racked up totals of 328 and 239 yards on the ground, respectively, in October victories over Denver and Seattle. Top back Darren McFadden (771 rushing yards, 26 receptions, 6 total TD) is an exceptional playmaker who's averaging 5.2 yards per carry and doubles as an impact receiver out of the backfield, while 245- pounder Michael Bush (357 yards, 4 TD, 11 receptions) brings a physical element between the tackles. Cable will try to get the duo rolling to ease the burden on Campbell (1322 passing yards, 7 TD, 6 INT), whose big arm and above- average mobility are often offset by the ex-Redskin's lack of accuracy and indecisiveness in the pocket. To be fair, Oakland's 28th-ranked passing offense (212.9 ypg) doesn't have many reliable options to throw to other than tight end Zach Miller (36 receptions, 4 TD), and his production has been slowed lately by a nagging foot injury he's playing through. Second-year man Louis Murphy (24 receptions, 1 TD) is the best of a pedestrian allotment of wide receivers, though rookie speedster Jacoby Ford (12 receptions) flashed some ability with a six-catch, 148-yard effort in Oakland's overtime win over the Chiefs in Week 9. McFadden was reduced to 14 rushing yards on 10 totes by the stifling Steelers last Sunday, and the Raiders' entire offense was bogged down as a result.
The Dolphins know they're going to need to stop the run in order to come out on top this week, but the team has had some trouble doing so in its last few games. Miami has surrendered 135 rushing yards or more in three straight contests, which has kept players like inside linebacker Karlos Dansby (78 tackles, 2 sacks) and strong safety Yeremiah Bell (73 tackles, 1.5 sacks) busy and the defense as a whole on the field too long. The Dolphins have been better against the pass as of late, with Tennessee and Chicago registering a mere 133 and 124 yards through the air, respectively, over the past two weeks on a secondary headlined by impressive young corner Vontae Davis (35 tackles, 1 INT, 7 PD) and which has been bolstered by the signing of veteran Al Harris earlier this month. However, the biggest impact has been made by outside linebacker Cameron Wake (38 tackles), a devastating pass rusher whose 9 1/2 sacks are second in the league among individuals.
With both teams going through a difficult period on offense and having questions to answer at quarterback, this has the makings of a low-scoring game that should warrant starting consideration for either defense. As for the skill players, McFadden is a strong choice but possibly the only worthwhile one on the Oakland side, as Miller's injury has made the talented tight end a rather risky play and the wide receivers have all been hit-or-miss. With Gradkowski casting a large shadow from the sidelines, Campbell can't be recommended in a game in which he might be yanked again at the first sign of distress. Since it's uncertain whether Henne will even start and Thigpen's clearly not a viable option, stay away from Miami quarterbacks. Marshall's unavailability makes boosts the prospects of both Hartline and Fasano, however, and Brown and Williams usually do enough to make both Dolphin backs usable flex players. Count on the kickers playing a big role in the outcome, as Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski leads the league with 23 field goals made and Miami's Dan Carpenter is tied for second with 22.
While last week's dismal performance showed the Raiders still have a ways to go before joining the AFC's elite, the inconsistent and banged-up Dolphins should be a bit easier to handle. Miami's offense has been out of whack for a month going, and neither the likely absence of its best playmaker in Marshall nor a limited Henne having to play behind a hurting front line figures to help the situation. Oakland has its issues on that side of the ball as well, but should be able to lean upon a potent running game and the ferocious environment of the Coliseum -- where the Silver and Black have been an awfully tough opponent this year -- to keep its postseason dreams a possibility while essentially shattering those of their reeling foe.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Raiders 17, Dolphins 13
11/26 11:24:12 ET