In a game that the Oakland Raiders had to win, the team fell completely flat—utterly embarrassed by a Miami Dolphins team that had three wins entering Sunday’s contest in South Florida. In a game the Raiders needed to win, the leaders of the AFC West looked more like the bleeders of the West, as they left Miami hemorrhaging and looking anemic.
It was a must-win game because the red-hot Denver Broncos cannot be stopped, having won their fifth game in a row in another heart-racing fashion. Oakland (7-5) is now tied with Denver atop the division, but you could not tell that the Raiders were a first-place team.
It was a must-win game because the Raiders’ next opponent is the undefeated, unattainable and unflappable Green Bay Packers on Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field. Should Oakland lose to the cheese-headed juggernaut, the Raiders would fall to 7-6 on the season and find themselves in a precarious position in order to secure a playoff berth.
The ups and downs of the Raiders’ season is a natural part of the NFL, but it’s particularly sea-sickening for a Raider Nation fanbase so accustomed to the ebbs and flows of their rebellious team. The lows of the death of owner Al Davis are matched by the high of an emotional road win against the Houston Texans. The high of a three-game winning streak into first place is balanced by a pathetic drowning at the hands of the Dolphins last Sunday. Through it all, the Raiders have been able to find just enough balance to remain a competitive team and legitimate postseason contender.
And yet, there has never been so much negative feeling surrounding a 7-5 team. With just four games left, it kind of feels like the Raiders are nearly capsizing.
How does the team explain to their fans what’s wrong?
Ultimately, there’s not much that can be explained with regards to the Raiders’ health. Oakland has had many of its artillery missing, with the likes of running back Darren McFadden, wideouts Jacoby Ford, Darius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore, Louis Murphy and tight end Marcell Reece each out for portions of this season—mostly in the past month—due to respective injuries. Not to mention opening day starting quarterback Jason Campbell’s absence since breaking his right collar bone in Week 6.
Needless to say, the Raiders haven’t been able to man a full army during their more recent battles.
While Oakland has managed to live—and die—on their team emotions, it’s been difficult to stay afloat with so many of their crew trying to tread water with injured limbs. On Sunday, it appeared to catch up to the Raiders, who looked apathetic and lifeless in Miami in all three facets of the game.
Offensively, the Raiders have had to become even more imaginative than they already are under head coach Hue Jackson, who is notorious for his risky chicanery and creative play-calling. With Michael Bush filling in for McFadden at running back, is the Raiders’ ground game becoming more predictable?
In Sunday’s loss to the Dolphins, the Raiders demonstrated how diluted their once-dynamic running attack has become. Without their backup to the backup, Taiwan Jones—also nursing an injury—Oakland’s fourth-ranked rushing offense was swallowed up, gaining a miniscule 46 yards on only 14 carries. Without a formal backup to take pressure of an ambushed Bush, Jackson was forced to sneak wideout Murphy for a couple of run plays.
Will the Raiders beat the Green Bay Packers this weekend?
In the end, it was rather moot, as the Dolphins run defense manhandled Oakland's front line, extinguishing the Raiders run game, hurrying Palmer to the tune of three sacks and five quarterback hits and wreaking all-around havoc for their visitors. The Raiders were completely squashed by the Miami defensive front, unable to break away for any big plays until the game was already out of hand.
Four of the team's five plays that went for over 20 yards appeared in the fourth quarter, when Miami's defense was already downshifting to indifference. The Raiders were in actuality worse than the 34-14 final score indicated, if that's possible.
So what happens next? How does Oakland regroup from here, with a trip to face the indomitable Packers this Sunday? How does Jackson get his team prepared for a potentially daunting contest, knowing that the outcome of which may seal their AFC West fate? True, the Raiders are not buried if they are unable to steal a victory in Green Bay. But has any fanbase become more weary of their first-place team than Oakland's?
The Raiders can still make a battle of it. But it's clear that this team needs all of its weaponry at full health. Bush has not had to handle this much workload in his NFL career; it's possible he's a bit bushed and could be tiring. And the Carson Palmer experiment is obviously not saving the season like Jackson had anticipated, nor is the T.J. Houshmandzadeh doing any of worth for the offense.
Facing a Miami opponent with a weak record, the Raiders surely expected to come out on top. Many suggested Oakland looking ahead at Green Bay or were looking behind them at the Broncos.
But one thing's for sure: The Raiders cannot look in their rear view mirror at this past weekend's Dolphins game. If they want to see themselves atop the AFC West at season's end, they have to look in the mirror at themselves as the ones accountable for their playoff destiny.