The Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos will battle in primetime on Sunday night, with first place in the AFC West up for grabs.
With half of their games officially in the rearview mirror, the Oakland Raiders season has gone as well as anyone could have hoped. At 6-2 and tied for first place in the AFC West, the Raiders have legitimized themselves as a playoff team, with aspirations beyond that.
But to cement themselves in either conversation, they’ll need to pass their toughest test yet — a primetime Sunday night matchup with the Denver Broncos.
The primetime showdown has been a long time coming for the Silver and Black, who haven’t appeared in a Sunday night game since 2006 — coincidentally, a 13-3 loss to the Broncos at Mile High Stadium.
Also standing at 6-2, the Broncos have their own aspirations, which includes defending a Super Bowl title. And in order to regain their crown as AFC West champions, they’ll have to fend off this upstart team in the East Bay.
Oakland’s season has been filled with thrilling games, most of which have ended in victory for the Raiders. A huge change from past seasons, and a trend the Raiders certainly hope continues. At least the winning part, and maybe not so much the thrilling, close games part.
With Denver coming to town, it doesn’t seem likely the part about the close games will stop this week. On the contrary, this certainly could be yet another game that comes down to the wire — most sportsbooks have the Raiders as one-point favorites.
In terms of how these teams matchup, the sportsbooks may very well be right (which they usually are). Oakland boasts the fifth ranked offense in the NFL, while Denver fields the league’s third best defense.
Something has to give.
These types of battles typically favor the defense — defense does win championships, after all — and that is what makes this the toughest test the Raiders have faced this season.
Even more specific, where Oakland’s offense thrives, Denver’s defense excels. The Raiders make their living through the air — Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree are the lifeblood of this offense — and the Broncos defense makes their living stopping the air attack. Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr., Bradley Roby and T.J. Ward form the best secondary in the NFL.
The Raiders average 285.1 passing yards per game, fourth best in the league. The Broncos allow just 183.9 passing yards per game, tops in the NFL.
Even with Talib out, not much changes. And that is no slight to Talib — rather, a compliment to how good this secondary truly is. Roby, who is very good, will slide to the outside. Kayvon Webster is more than capable of handling the slot.
So while Oakland’s air attack against Denver’s lockdown secondary will carry the headlines, the intrigue of this matchup goes beyond that.
With 26 sacks, the Broncos are tied for the league lead. Von Miller leads the way with 8.5, Derek Wolfe has 4.5, Shane Ray is at 4, Jared Crick and DeMarcus Ware both have 2, and a handful of others have sacks sprinkled in.
Wade Phillips is a brilliant defensive coordinator and is one of the best in the business. His 3-4 defense is as creative as it is destructive.
On the other side — which team is the best in the NFL in keeping their quarterback on his feet? That would be the Oakland Raiders. At just 9 sacks allowed, Mike Tice and his group of big uglies is the only team in single-digits.
Again, something has to give.
But here lies a fallacy — something does have to give, but perhaps not in the way you think.
Derek Carr and his top two wideouts do not have to light up Denver’s secondary to win this game. They just have to be efficient, turnover free, and they have to show up when it matters most. They don’t even necessarily have to keep Carr off the ground.
Take December of 2015, for instance. If I told you that Derek Carr would be sacked 3 times and complete just 41 percent of his passes for 135 yards, but the Raiders would go on to beat Denver, would you believe me?
Because that’s exactly what happened on that December day. Carr was 12 for 29 for 135 yards, but he threw two touchdowns and did not turn the ball over. The 6-6 Raiders topped the 9-2 Broncos, 15-12.
Amari Cooper did not record a catch and Michael Crabtree caught just 4 passes for 19 yards. Oakland’s leading pass-catcher was Mychal Rivera, at 3 catches for 49 yards and a touchdown.
So, did the run game carry the offense? Nope. The Raiders had 23 carries for 27 yards on the day.
Playing against Brock Osweiler helped, but the defense was a big reason the Raiders won this game. They forced two turnovers, and were able to contain Denver’s offense.
You might remember that December victory as the game Khalil Mack recorded 5 sacks. While as great as it would be to have that happen again, for argument’s sake, let’s just say that isn’t something the Raiders can bank on happening again.
Because that was then, and this is now. Osweiler somehow fleeced the Texans into giving him a ton of money, and Denver’s offense had sputtered all season long thanks to mediocre QB play.
Also, the corpse formally known as Peyton Manning is gone now, although it doesn’t feel like it because he’s on every other commercial on TV. But anyway, this is Trevor Sieman’s team now. And while Denver’s offense still won’t light up the scoreboard, they aren’t going to come out and a lay a dud like they did last season.
Oakland’s defense also isn’t performing as well as last year’s group. Even with new talent added to the defense in the offseason, the Raiders have surprisingly taken a step back in this regard. Or maybe a few steps back.
Mack and company have improved in recent weeks — certainly a positive sign — but we need to see more consistency here before we can confidently say this defense can win games for this team when the offense can’t.
Will this be the week we find out? Perhaps.
But if Oakland’s defense isn’t able to keep Denver’s offense under, let’s say, 20 points — then what?
Is the Raiders offense truly as good as advertised? Even against a defense as formidable as Denver’s, can they score 20+ points? Can they keep Derek Carr clean? Can Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree get open enough? Will the Raiders be able to establish the run?
Those are the questions that matter the most on Sunday. This is the biggest test this offense, and this team, will face all season.
At least until the last game of the season, when the Raiders and Broncos are at it once again.