And so the Raiders 2014 season will come to a close Sunday in Denver when they face off against Peyton Manning and the Broncos. The Broncos are headed to the playoffs and the Raiders are headed home but there is still much to play for in this game for both teams.
Come Monday, the Broncos will be preparing for their first opponent in the playoffs. For the Raiders, they will begin preparing for a complete overhaul of the coaching staff and perhaps the front office as well. It's a reloading team versus a rebuilding team. A Hall of Fame bound quarterback versus a rookie. A team based below sea level versus a team a mile high.
Here is what to look for as these two bitter division rivals clash to close out the 2014 regular season.
Draft position be damned
At this point in the season, the Raiders are out of the running for the number one overall draft pick and are guaranteed a pick in the top six in the draft. Therefore whether they win or lose this game will not influence their draft position enough to matter much. They can move as high as the third overall spot but to do so would require the Jaguars and Jets to win. That will be a tough proposition considering the Jaguars will be playing the Texans who are still holding onto slim playoff hopes, and the Jets are in Miami. If the Jets and Jags both lose, the Raiders would still sit at the five spot if they lost. That means a win in Denver would only drop them on spot. And is that, I say, worth a beating the Broncos? You bet it is. And then some. So, not that it would enter your mind, but if draft position does take up any of your thoughts, just let go of it.
The Raiders are already tied for their best finish over their final six games since their Super Bowl season in 2002. If they win Sunday, it would mean 4-2 over their final six games which would stand along as their best finish since that amazing season which is now a distant memory. It is all the more amazing considering they began the season 0-10. It would give Mark Davis something to think about with regard to whether Tony Sparano might be worth considering to return as head coach.
Even with the strong finish to the season, all of those wins came at home. Their two losses in between were their two road games in which they were outscored by 83-13. The Raiders haven't won on the road since November 17, 2013 in Houston -- a string of ten-straight losses. They have lost 19 of their last 20 on the road and have won just two road games over the past three seasons under the new regime. The last time they won in Denver was the 2011 season opener. In Denver is not the most ideal place to try and change that string.
In the latter part of the season, with teams clamoring for a spot in the playoffs, the Raiders have embraced their role as spoilers. They knocked the Bills out of the playoffs last week, set the 49ers up to get knocked out of the playoffs the week before, and set the Chiefs on a three-game losing streak that has their destiny out of their control. The Broncos have clinched the AFC West and are in, but if the Raiders win and the Bengals win, the Broncos will have to play in the wildcard round of the playoffs when otherwise they would get a bye. The Broncos would very much like to not have to play an extra game if they don't have to. They need this win to ensure that happens.
Peyton Manning vs Depleted cornerbacks
Last time they faced the Broncos, they were in it through most of the first half but once the Broncos started scoring, it was five-straight touchdowns before they were done. And that was with a relatively healthy group of corners. Now the Raiders are digging deep into their rotation. The latest to be ruled out for the game is T.J. Carrie. He would have started opposite D.J. Hayden, but now the team will most likely turn to Carrie's fellow rookie, Keith McGill. He was a fourth round pick while Carrie was a seventh rounder but Carrie has been outstanding while McGill has not. Behind him in Neiko Thorpe who figures to see a lot of time at the nickel corner spot. After that it's Ras-I Dowling and Chance Casey who up until the past few weeks were both practice squad guys. Earlier in the season, the Raiders tured to Brandian Ross to play slot corner, moving over from his safety position. That is no longer an option because Ross no longer has Larry Asante to replace him at free safety (he is on injured reserve). Manning can pick apart most defensive backfields, but this one could be especially to his liking.
Charles Woodson vs Julius Thomas
Not to be the bearer of bad news, but last time these two teams played, Charles Woodson was lit up like a Christmas tree by Julius Thomas. It was Thomas' third best game of the season and by far Woodson's worst game this season. Thomas had 6 catches on 7 targets for 63 yards and 2 touchdowns. The usual steadfast anchor of the Raiders secondary was helpless to stop Thomas and his surpreme athleticism and hands. Woodson leads the Raiders in interceptions (4) and is the unquestioned leader of this defense. He will be looking to have a bounce back game to head into the off-season feeling good about himself. It will be important for him as he has a lot to ponder about his future in the NFL and with the Raiders.
The Raiders running attack has turned around late in the season. But it was so horribly bad early in the season that they are still on pace for a record low in rushing yards per game. Currently they sit at 78.2 yards per game. The record is 80.9 yards per game. That means they need at least 122 yards rushing Sunday to avoid setting a new record low in rushing yards. They went for 140 yards last week but it was only the second time all season they have rushed for over 122 yards.
There is another record low the Raiders will be trying to avoid and that's their franchise lowest sack total. Their lowest total sacks in franchise history is 25, which they've done three times. They currently sit at 21 sacks on the season. So, they would need at least four sacks to keep from setting a new record low.
Speaking of sacks, Mack had his fourth of the season last week on Bills quarterback, Kyle Orton. He had an outstanding game last week which should have put him squarely in the lead for Defensive Rookie of the Year. If he can record another sack this week, it would go a long way to sending that hardware home to him. He already has all the stats in run defense and QB hurries, but voters love sacks.
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