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Chris Perkins: Things to watch for in Miami Dolphins-Las Vegas Raiders matchup

MIAMI GARDENS — Momentum is a fickle and sometimes unpredictable presence. The Miami Dolphins lost momentum the last time they took the field, a 21-14 loss to Kansas City in Germany two weeks ago. But they gained momentum when AFC playoff favorites Buffalo, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Jacksonville and the Los Angeles Chargers all suffered losses this past week, the most meaningful being Buffalo (5-5).

The Dolphins (6-3), who have lost two of their past three games, enter Sunday’s 1 p.m. home game against the Las Vegas Raiders (5-5) with a more firm hold on first place in the AFC East than they had two games ago. The key for Miami, which is also riding a wave of good health, is maintaining that momentum.

The Raiders bring their own version of momentum to Hard Rock Stadium. They’re 2-0 under interim coach Antonio Pierce and they’re using an aggressive pass rush to lead the way.

Here are five things to watch for in Sunday’s game: 

Staying focused

Those losses by some of the AFC’s top teams all reinforced the need to stay focused in one way or the other whether it was an upset loss such as Cincinnati losing to Houston at home, or an attention-to-detail loss such as Buffalo having 12 men on the field on a missed last-second field goal attempt by Denver (the Broncos hit the re-kick after the penalty and won the game).

Miami, which is 4-0 at home this season and 10-2 at home under coach Mike McDaniel, must take Las Vegas seriously.

The Raiders have momentum and newfound belief, and that can be an invaluable combination for an underdog.

Dolphins pass protection, Raiders pass defense

Miami has done a good job keeping quarterback Tua Tagovailoa upright. Dolphins quarterbacks, Tagovailoa and backup Mike White, have been sacked 15 times, which is third-fewest in the league. 

Here’s the issue: if the Raiders devote a lot of attention to wide receiver Tyreek Hill, often Tagovailoa’s No. 1 option, the pass rush has more time to get to Tagovailoa, who thrives on quick reads and getting rid of the ball quickly. 

The Raiders are tied for 13th in sacks with 26 (Miami is ninth with 29 sacks). In the past two games — a 30-6 victory over the New York Giants and a 16-12 victory over the New York Jets — they have eight sacks and 16 quarterback hits. Granted, six sacks were against the Giants, but it’s still an impressive two-game total. And they had seven quarterback hits against the Jets. Defensive end Maxx Crosby, who is fourth in the league with 9.5 sacks, had 3.0 sacks against the Giants and two quarterback hits against the Jets. 

Tua and the interceptions

Tagovailoa has seven interceptions in nine games. The seven picks are tied for eighth in the league. He had eight interceptions in 13 games last season. Tagovailoa didn’t have an interception in the Kansas City loss but he’s thrown an interception in six of Miami’s nine games.

The Raiders’ nine interceptions are tied for ninth-most in the league. Linebacker Robert Spillane leads the team with three followed by cornerback Amik Robertson, who left the Jets game with a concussion, and safety Tre’von Moehrig, who have two apiece. Coincidentally, those three rank 1-2-3 as the team’s leading tacklers.

Turnovers are often a great equalizer and considering Miami is minus-4 in turnover margin, Tagovailoa’s interceptions must be watched carefully.

The run game

The Dolphins are 24th in rushing attempts (227), which is significant because they were 31st last season and McDaniel vowed to run the ball more. He has run it more, but possibly not enough. Miami should run more this week because it’s expected that dynamic rookie running back De’Von Achane (460 yards rushing, 12.1 yards per carry, five touchdowns) will make a return from the injured reserve list, where he’d been sidelined with a knee injury. Miami leads the league in rushing average (5.9 yards per carry), is tied for second in rushing yards per game (147.9) and tied for third in rushing yards (1,331). 

Miami’s defense has chance to win the game

Miami’s defense, under the direction of coordinator Vic Fangio, gets its second game at full force, meaning cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and Xavien Howard are healthy, and edge rushers Jaelan Phillips and Bradley Chubb are healthy, and, as a bonus, cornerback Nik Needham and safety Brandon Jones are healthy.

The Dolphins have 12 sacks in their past four games. However, they could do better at forcing turnovers as their nine forced turnovers are tied for 27th.

Raiders running back Josh Jacobs, who led the league in rushing last season, ran for a season-best 116 yards last Sunday against the Jets. Wide receiver Davante Adams  (57 receptions, 659 yards, three touchdowns) must always be watched. But there’s plenty of opportunity for Miami to rattle rookie quarterback Aidan O’Connell, the fourth-round pick out of Purdue who has two touchdowns, three interceptions and a 76.4 passer rating in four games.

The Dolphins defense will look to move one step closer to being a game-changing unit.

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