It has come to this. Easily the biggest game of the season for either of these teams clashing in an NBC Sunday Night Football prime time event (5:30 pm PT).
We’re already halfway through the season and they are meeting for the first time. Both teams sitting at 6-2, tied for the division lead. This would be a key match-up regardless. But there is so much more to this than just records.
Even when these two teams are on the opposite end of the competitive spectrum, which they have been a lot in recent years, it’s still a bitter heated battle.
The Broncos may have won the last game of last season (the Super Bowl), but the Raiders won their last meeting in week 14 of the season. And had it not been for that fluke Blue Angels flyby in Oakland that helped result in a pick six, the upstart Raiders may have swept the eventual Super Bowl champions. It’s even possible the additional loss on their record could have seriously adversely affected their playoff run.
But, this isn’t about what-ifs and coulda-woulda-shouldas. This is merely about just how tough these two teams play each other and how much weight these games carry.
The last time both of these teams had a record of 6-2 or better to begin the season was 1998. That was Jon Gruden’s first season as Raiders head coach and Charles Woodson’s rookie season. For the Broncos, it was John Elway’s final season and the last season Terrell Davis played a full season.
After that 6-2 start, the Raiders finished the season 2-6. Meanwhile the Broncos lost just two games all season, swept the Raiders, and went on to with their second consecutive Super Bowl.
Not that those results from nearly 20 years ago matter in any way – not to mention their future Hall of Fame QB retired after last season -- but it’s interesting.
But aside from the division and playoff implications of the game, this one has everything (Stefan voice).
Top passing offense vs top passing defense
Technically the Raiders have the NFL’s fourth rated pass offense while the Broncos have the NFL’s number one rated pass defense. Even still, it’s two juggernauts squaring off. The Broncos have only faced two offenses who are rated in the top ten this season – the Falcons (2) and Chargers (7) -- and they represent their two losses on the season.
The Raiders have faced two teams among the top ten in pass defense – the Ravens (6) and Jaguars (9) – winning both contests. The Broncos have given up nearly 40 fewer passing yards per game than either of those teams.
So, no the Raiders haven’t faced anything close to the caliber of pass defense of the Broncos which was arguably the very reason they were able to hoist the Lombardi trophy last season. However…
Without top corner(s)
The Broncos vaunted pass defense will be without All Pro cornerback Aqib Talib. As you might expect, they still have a very good group of starters led by Chris Harris Jr, Bradley Roby, TJ Ward, and Darian Stewart. Even if this unit can hold their own, being without their best corner is not a good thing.
Going down with an injured shoulder on the second play of last week’s game against the Buccaneers was Raiders cornerback Sean Smith. Now, without any pointless argument over whether he or David Amerson is the team’s top corner, Smith’s absence would be a big loss.
Officially, Smith is questionable for the game. He says he is ready, but it is ultimately up to the Raiders medical staff and coaches as to whether he is cleared to play. And if he DOES play, will he be 100% or close to it?
If he can’t go, DJ Hayden and TJ Carrie will have to step up both as the starter and in the slot.
Both teams still pulled out wins last week without their top corners. For Denver, without Talib, they gave up a season high 267 yards passing to Philip Rivers.
They won thanks to a key turnover…
AFC OPOW vs AFC DPOW
The man who will be taking Talib’s place in the starting lineup is Bradley Roby. He stepped in last week for Talib and his pick six was a major factor in the Broncos pulling out a 27-19 victory over the Chargers. That helped earn him AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. It was the second meeting of the two teams in the past three weeks, with the Chargers winning the first one.
Roby will be asked to do it again this week against Derek Carr who’s coming off a week in which he threw for 513 yards, 4 touchdowns, and no interceptions to earn him AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. The difference here is Carr has been playing at a high level most of the season, which has him as the NFL’s 5th leading passer (2321 yards).
Von Miller vs Khalil Mack
Helping both teams in their pass defense efforts is a pass rush. Miller has carried his momentum of winning Super Bowl MVP into this season, leading to being a half sack out of the NFL lead (8.5).
The Raiders pass protection has been superb this season. That’s a credit to the offensive line, the offensive coordinator, and the quarterback. Bill Musgrave often using the jumbo package or an extra tight end to help the tackles keep oncoming rushers out of the backfield. Derek Carr has done well to know where his protection is and to move around the pocket, escape the pocket, or get rid of the ball to ensure he doesn’t get sacked. Though last week’s strip sack was an indication there are still glitches.
Speaking of strip sacks; Khalil Mack. He has one of those last time he faced the Broncos. It resulted in a safety. That sack was one of a franchise record 5.0 sacks in that week 14 Raiders victory. All of them came in the second half of the game.
He’s a great player, one of the elite linebackers in this league,” Von Miller said of Mack this week.
“He had five sacks in one half. That just speaks to the volume of the type of player that everyone know he can be.”
Mack got off to another slow start this season; which he has done all three seasons in the NFL. If his trend continues as it did last season – when he had 11 sacks in the second half of the season and finished with 15.0 on the season -- we can expect him to put up big numbers over the second half of the season. Fitting that this game begins that second half. His 5.0 sacks puts him ahead of his sack totals after eight games in each of the past two seasons.
Trevor Siemian vs Raiders suspect pass defense
Currently the Raiders are ranked 27th in the league in pass defense. Thus far Trevor Siemian has faced one pass defense that ranked below the Raiders. They revisited their match-up with the now feckless Carolina Panthers in week one. In that game, Siemian threw for just 178 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions and the Broncos eeked out a 21-20 victory over the now cellar dwelling Panthers.
In fact, just one game this season did Siemian throw more than one touchdown and over 300 yards. He threw for 314 yards and 4 touchdowns in a big win over the Bengals in week three. It was one of just two wins on the season over a winning team and easily their biggest win. At least until Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Raiders pass defense has been steadily improving. Though that’s not saying a whole lot considering just how many yards they were giving up early in the season.
There is a false narrative there if you just look at the numbers, however. Sure, the secondary is beginning to jell. But also the caliber of opposing offenses hasn’t been what it was early on. They began the season against Drew Brees, and Matt Ryan. The past couple weeks they have seen Blake Bortles and Jameis Winston.
The best way to look at the numbers is to compare them to the numbers that same opposing quarterback had the rest of the season. And with eight games in the books, there is a good sample to look at. Here is where each quarterback’s performance against the Raiders ranked among their performances throughout the season:
Drew Brees – Yards: 2nd, Passer rating: 1st
Matt Ryan – Yards 2nd, Passer rating 2nd
Marcus Mariota – Yards 6th, Passer rating 8th (last)
Joe Flacco -- Yards 6th, Passer rating 6th
Philip Rivers – Yards 2nd, Passer rating 2nd
Alex Smith – Yards 4th, Passer rating 2nd
Blake Bortles – Yards 5th, Passer rating 7th (last)
Jameis Winston – Yards 7th, Passer rating 6th
How do we decipher this information with regard to Trevor Siemian? Funny thing, actually.
Siemian fits right in the middle of these eight quarterback in terms of passer rating. The quarterbacks on this list who have a better season passer rating than Siemian (87.1) are Brees, Ryan, Rivers, and Smith -- all of whom had some of their best numbers this season against the Raiders. The other four all had among their worst numbers against the Raiders.
Leaving us with yet another push among many in terms of what to expect from this match-up. And if we needed more reasons to believe this will be a hard fought battle.
Both teams are in the plus column in turnover ratio. While the Raiders are better in the category with a plus 7 in turnover ratio to the Broncos plus 5, the Broncos are more opportunist with 16 takeaways to the Raiders 13.
That also means the Raiders have done a better job of protecting the ball on offense. Trevor Siemian has thrown 4 interceptions and two fumbles and Devontae Booker has 3 fumbles of his own.
Most of the Raiders turnovers have been charged to Derek Carr who has 3 interceptions and 3 fumbles. That’s not a knock on Carr, honestly. If anything it’s a positive. Just three interceptions in 8 games is outstanding. It’s the fewest interceptions in the NFL among QB’s with at least 250 pass attempts. In fact, Carr actually leads the league with 323 pass attempts. To have just 3 interceptions is phenomenal. The fumbles happen with sacks. He has been sacked 9 times, fumbling on two of them. The other was a bobbled snap that the Raiders recovered.
What to make of the run game
With things seemingly evening out in the pass game, the area that tilts the game one way or the other could be the ground game. The Broncos are without leading rusher CJ Anderson, who was placed on IR last week.
The funny thing is, Anderson’s replacement is rookie Devontae Booker whose numbers are nearly identical to that of Latavius Murray. Booker has one more carry for 19 more yards than Murray, averaging 4.3 yards per carry to Murray’s 4.0.
But after that, the comparisons stop. The Broncos essentially have no one behind Booker. While the Raiders have split carries among Murray and rookie backs DeAndre Washington (52 carries for 267 yards) and Jalen Richard (35 carries for 217 yards).
Murray will be important as the workhorse, but equally important will be the change of pace backs and the energy they bring to the game.
While the Broncos pass defense is much celebrated, their rush defense is not. They are currently 23rd in the league in defending the run (117.4 yards per game). The Raiders run defense is worse (125.0 ypg).
Again, what a match-up. The Vegas odds are even for a reason. Everything matches up strength v strength with two teams with the same record in the same division in a Prime time battled royale. The only thing missing from the Raiders’ season is a win against a top team. If they get that Sunday night, that will be a major statement on national television. If they don’t, the questions will only get louder as to whether they can continue their winning ways and make a playoff run.
We should all be eagerly anticipating this. I know I am.