Two teams. Two very opposite directions.
The 9-3 Denver Broncos have clinched the AFC West for the second consecutive year. The team is also riding a seven-game regular-season win streak, its first since 1998.
Meanwhile in Oakland, the slumping Raiders are 3-9 and losers of five straight, and are eliminated from the playoff race for the 10th straight year. The record only tells part of the story: The rushing Raiders of recent memory only rank 29th in the league with 82.8 yards a game. The only steady offensive production has come from quarterback Carson Palmer, but he’s looked flat out terrible at times in 2012. The Raiders are even worse on defense, ranked 28th overall in the NFL.
But…we know the cliché, and it’s entirely true: Anything can happen, especially in a division game at a hostile stadium…and especially with only a four-day turnaround.
Former Broncos defensive coordinator and current Raiders head coach Dennis Allen is expected to coach Thursday, just two days after the death of his father.
When Oakland has the ball: The Raiders are battling a whole slew of injuries. The running back corps has been particularly hard hit; four backs – Mike Goodson, Taiwan Jones, Darren McFadden, and Marcel Reese – were limited participants in practice this week. All are listed as probable for Thursday.
Palmer is one of seven quarterbacks with more passing yards than Manning, but he has fewer touchdown passes (29 to 20) and more interceptions (13 to 9). Palmer’s favorite target as of late is tight end Brandon Myers, who had 130 receiving yards in the Raiders’ Week 13 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
The Broncos defense has been burned at times by tight ends heavily involved in the offensive game plan, but don’t expect Denver to surrender too many yards on Thursday night. Gone are the days of the defense being a liability. The Broncos allow an average of 308.2 yards a game, which is third best in the NFL.
Von Miller has more sacks than the entire Oakland Raiders defense. (courtesy Jeffrey Beall)
When Denver has the ball: It took the better part of six quarters, but during the second half of Sunday’s victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Denver Broncos offense finally started to resemble the Denver Broncos offense we’ve grown accustomed to seeing.
And for Broncos fans, Thursday should be more of the same.
The Raiders defense allows 31.3 points a game – worst in the NFL. You know a unit is bad when it gives up 475 yards to the Browns, including eight passing plays of more than 20 yards.
If Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden can pick apart the Raiders defense, imagine what Manning can do Thursday. Manning threw for 338 yards in the teams’ 37-6 thumping in Week 4. It doesn’t help Oakland that three members of the Raiders secondary – safeties Matt Giordano and Mike Mitchell and cornerback Phillip Adams – suffered concussions in the Cleveland game.
As usual, the offensive line must work to keep Manning from getting battered in the box. Manning wasn’t sacked when Denver hosted Oakland back in late-September. The Raiders don’t get to the quarterback much. In fact, Broncos linebacker Von Miller has more sacks (15) than the entire Oakland Raiders (14).
The reality of it all is barring Oakland delivering a revelation of perfect execution, about the only way the Raiders can remain in this game is keeping Denver out of rhythm, and forcing Broncos turnovers. The Broncos are minus-3 in the turnover differential this season, much worse than the other top teams in the AFC. New England, Houston, and Baltimore are all plus-13 or better. Earlier this week, head coach John Fox said cutting down on turnovers is crucial to making a deep playoff run. On Thursday, turnovers and/or a smattering of Denver penalties are about the only things that can realistically allow Oakland to hang around. If the Broncos take care of the ball, it shouldn’t be too difficult to take care of the Raiders.
Denver 34, Oakland 17
Not even 44,000 people attended Oakland’s game Sunday against Cleveland – the lowest since 2010 – but expect a bigger turnout Thursday. It’s an evening game against a division opponent. It’s been a tough season for Oakland, but humbling the division champs could provide a bright spot for the organization moving forward.
Follow Denver Horse Force on Twitter at @DENHorseForce and Facebook at www.facebook.com/denverhorseforce.