A battle of AFC upstarts finishes off the NFL's post-Christmas tripleheader
The Miami Dolphins and Las Vegas Raiders have spent much of the year as two of the AFC's big surprises. Neither organization has had a winning season since 2016, and both are nurturing young teams who have grown up much faster than expected. Just a few months ago, no one would have bet on either one sitting in playoff contention entering Week 15 of this chaotic COVID-19 NFL season.
But in the past two weeks, all bets are off for the Raiders in Sin City as they've struggled to maintain early season momentum. Four losses in five games have dropped them to 7-7 and ninth in the AFC playoff pecking order. Even their lone victory during that stretch, against the 1-13 Jets, needed a little extra help in the form of a bizarre defensive blitz on the final play to open up the deep ball. Starting quarterback Derek Carr is nursing a groin injury, and there's uncertainty over whether he'll be able to play.
That creates an opening for the Dolphins to both eliminate their AFC rival and come one step closer to holding that Biggest Surprise title all to themselves. A victory puts them at 10-5 and in position to control their own destiny heading into the season's final week. But can the Dolphins finally beat a decent team in the AFC? Their only victories against teams with winning records came while playing the NFC West's Rams (9-5) and Cardinals (8-6). Considering the Rams lost to those 1-13 Jets last week, that takes a little luster off what was a season-best performance at the time.
It also just goes to show you anything can happen in the parity-filled world of the NFL. Can the Raiders pull themselves together and find a way to keep their fading postseason hopes alive? They'll need to overcome a recent drought, as the Raiders have a 20-18-1 record in this series overall but have lost six of their last seven matchups.
Miami at Las Vegas
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 26 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV: NFL Network
Spread: Dolphins -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Who will start at quarterback for the Raiders?
Chances are increasing Carr will be available to play for the Raiders on Saturday night. After pulling up lame in the first quarter of Thursday's game with the Chargers, his groin injury is healing faster than expected, and the quarterback was a full participant in Wednesday's practice.
That said, Marcus Mariota proved more than capable in a fill-in role; after all, he's the NFL's highest-paid backup at $7.5 million. Mariota showed flashes of brilliance, rushing for 88 yards on nine carries and a touchdown in his first in-game action of 2020. Mariota made some deep throws, too, although a costly fourth-quarter interception nearly cost his team the game against the Chargers. (Las Vegas lost anyway, 30-27 in OT).
Whoever starts needs to take care of the football; a Raiders quarterback has thrown a pick in five straight games. Five of Carr's seven interceptions on the year have come during this recent 1-4 Raiders skid along with six of his 20 sacks. It's been ugly, indeed, for a team whose turnover margin has slumped to -6, tied for 25th in the league and the worst for any organization with a .500 record or better.
2. Can the Dolphins' defense keep rolling?
In some categories, the Dolphins defense seems like they're middle of the pack: ranked 18th overall, 19th against the run, and 18th against the pass. But it's their ability to make the difference in key moments that stands out. Their 26 takeaways lead the NFL, a perfect recipe for the slumping Raiders; nine of those have come in the last four games. Just two weeks ago, the Dolphins' scheme forced leading NFL MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes into three interceptions (he's got just five total on the year).
The Dolphins also lead the NFL in third-down conversion rate allowed (32.63 percent). It's an underrated stat, limiting the ability of teams to sustain momentum after just two bad plays. The Raiders happen to be second in this category on offense (49.14 percent) although the team has struggled in recent weeks; they were a ho-hum 5-for-13 in Thursday's loss.
All of that adds up to one of the NFL's most stunning turnarounds. Fresh off allowing an NFL-worst 494 points last season, a franchise record, the Dolphins now lead in that category through 15 weeks (18.4 points allowed). In their last four games, they've allowed a total of one touchdown to three of those opponents (Jets, Bengals, Patriots) while giving Kansas City a run for their money.
3. Can Tua finally take it to the next level against a weaker defense?
Eight games into the Tua Tagovailoa starting quarterback experiment, the rookie is still finding his footing inside the NFL. In need of a better supporting cast, he's thrown for over 300 yards just once (two weeks ago against Kansas City) and is averaging a middling 6.47 yards per pass attempt. Most numbers are on par with, and in some cases, slightly below the man he replaced in Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The Raiders defense though offers an opportunity for a breakthrough. Two weeks ago, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther was fired after a 44-27 thumping by the Colts and little seemed to improve against the Chargers. They've given up an average of 36.0 points during their five-game streak and have sacked the quarterback just five times.
Limited pressure against Tua should help. The likely return of players such as leading rusher Myles Gaskin (COVID-19), wide receiver Devante Parker (hamstring), and tight end Mike Gesicki (shoulder) puts the Dolphins at near-maximum offensive output. Tua just needs to get them the football in what could be the first-ever NFL matchup between Hawaiian quarterbacks if Mariota starts.
The Dolphins don't have the offensive firepower to go deep in the playoffs. But their defense is good enough for them to reach the postseason, making this Raiders team an easy target considering how uneven they've played for the past month.
Prediction: Dolphins 27, Raiders 10
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.