Just one year after flirting with a winless season, the Miami Dolphins are on a roll - and very much in the hunt for a playoff spot in the AFC.
The moribund Oakland Raiders, meanwhile, have shown no such signs of a return to respectability.
As a result, the Dolphins figure to be in good position for their fourth consecutive victory on Sunday when they host the Raiders, whose futile offense has managed just 16 total points during the team’s three-game losing streak.
Miami’s 2007 season opened with 13 straight losses, including a 35-17 home defeat to the Raiders last Sept. 30 in which the Dolphins gave up 299 rushing yards.
But they avoided the ignominy of what would have been the first-ever 0-16 season with a 22-16 win over Baltimore on Dec. 16, then shook things up by hiring Tony Sparano as head coach and Bill Parcells as a front-office executive.
The moves appear to have had immediate results, as the Dolphins (5-4) have won five of their last seven games and are currently riding their first three-game winning streak since they won four straight in November 2006. A win against Oakland (2-7) would keep them just a game out of the AFC East lead.
“At the beginning of the season, no one probably expected it,” running back Ricky Williams said. “But we knew we had something special here.”
With new quarterback Chad Pennington managing the offense effectively and the running back duo of Williams and Ronnie Brown combining for 1,190 yards from scrimmage through nine games, the Dolphins have a winning record for the first time since they finished the 2005 season at 9-7.
Taking care of the football has been perhaps their greatest strength, as Miami has an NFL-low seven giveaways and hasn’t turned the ball over more than once in a game all season.
The Dolphins’ 21-19 victory over Seattle on Sunday wasn’t their best effort, but their defense denied the Seahawks’ two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game with less than three minutes left, making it three straight games in which the Dolphins have preserved a lead of a touchdown or less entering the fourth quarter.
“I think we are building confidence in ourselves and the ability to win,” Pennington said. “Instead of having a feeling of ‘here we go again’ when things don’t go our way, we focus on switching the vibe and switching the momentum.”
Thanks to a 51-yard touchdown run, Williams had his first 100-yard rushing game since Jan. 1, 2006, while Brown added a key 16-yard touchdown gallop in the fourth quarter.
The pair could pose problems for the Raiders’ defense, which ranks 29th in the NFL against the run, allowing an average of 158.1 yards on the ground per game.
But in the midst of a season that has included owner Al Davis’ firing of coach Lane Kiffin and injuries to recent first-round picks JaMarcus Russell and Darren McFadden, Oakland’s biggest problems have come on offense.
The Raiders, who are 21-68 since the start of 2003, managed just 77 total yards in a 24-0 home loss to Atlanta on Nov. 2, and following Sunday’s 17-6 loss to Carolina, they’ve now gone nine straight quarters without scoring a touchdown.
“I’ve got to manufacture some ways to score,” interim coach Tom Cable said. “I like the players we got. Are we getting them in the best position to do it? That’s really what I’ve been looking at.”
They averaged 9.8 yards on 15 carries against the Panthers - and their defense intercepted Carolina’s Jake Delhomme four times - but the Raiders still couldn’t find the end zone, as quarterback Andrew Walter was 14-of-32 for 143 yards and two interceptions. Walter was playing in place of Russell, who’s battling a knee injury and remains questionable to play in Miami.
The Raiders are hoping McFadden, the running back chosen fourth overall in this year’s draft, can return against the Dolphins after missing the last three games with turf toe. Oakland is also without defensive end Derrick Burgess, who totaled 35 sacks from 2005-07.
“We got to find a way to get Derrick Burgess back out and get Darren McFadden back out,” Cable said. “Two guys who we think can give us a boost on both sides of the ball. We’re not making any plays on offense in terms of a playmaker, an explosive-type play. We have to hopefully get those guys back as soon as possible and hopefully this is the week for Darren to be back.”
Last season’s loss to Oakland was Miami’s first in the regular season against the Raiders since 1996, as the Dolphins had won six straight in the series.
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