Unfortunately, this is the last set of “five burning questions with the enemy” this season as the Las Vegas Raiders have officially been eliminated from playoff contention.
Let’s face it, the way they’ve been playing over the past five or so weeks has not looked anything remotely close to a playoff-caliber team, so the elimination should have come as no surprise a week back.
And so here we are — in Week 17 of the 2020 NFL season (Happy New Year, by the way). There are two schools of thought when it comes to the final week of the season pitting two teams eliminated from playoff contention: Win to beat your division rival and go out with a .500 record or lose and improve your draft stock. I’m not saying tank this week, but how sweet would it be to improve your draft pick while at the same time worsen the Broncos?
Fine, I bet “win” it is. Go out on a high note. That’s the mentality of any player I’ve ever spoken to, so you can be sure these players are still going to be giving it their all.
With all of this in mind, we get to the five burning questions with Mile High Report, the Broncos SB Nation affiliate and our friend Joe Rowles who famously picked the Broncos to win just a few weeks ago.
Here’s hoping you’re wrong again, Joe!
S&BP: This season has largely not gone the way of the Broncos, that’s obvious. If you had to pick the biggest culprit as to WHY the season has been a disappointment, what would you pick?
The most obvious culprit is injuries. The Broncos two best players have logged all of 31 snaps on the field this year. At different points this season coach Vic Fangio had to play his fifth string right tackle and his fifth string quarterback. We’re at a point where the cornerback room has just one player who made the initial 53 man roster out of the preseason.
Beyond the obvious, the next biggest culprit has to come down to quarterback play.
S&BP: What will it take for John Elway to be in the proverbial ‘hot water’ as the general manager in Denver? Is that even a thing that could happen?
MHR: The current ownership situation makes it so it’d take an awful lot. Right now there’s a battle between the Bowlen’s about who should take over for Pat and his trust. The leader appears to be Brittany Bowlen and I’m curious to see if she has any say when it comes to Elway’s contract, which expires at the end of 2021. I suspect the Broncos need to hang around the playoff race for any extension talks, but we’ll see.
S&BP: Drew Lock was not good against Vegas just six weeks ago. How has he fared since the 4-interception debacle against the Raiders in Week 10?
MHR: If you watch the Broncos since the debacle in Vegas, they’ve veered away from the style of play that got Lock into so much trouble. I’m curious to see if that holds up in the rematch because lately, Pat Shurmur’s offensive MO has been to establish play action and protect his quarterback from obvious passing downs as much as possible. When it worked, the Broncos came painfully close to upsetting the Chiefs, but it unraveled when the clock got away from them against the Bills. As for Lock himself, he’s done a better job checking down and playing within the offense as of late. There are less “yolo” shot plays to iso routes and more boring passes to backs and tight ends on arrows and sits.
S&BP: A whopping 34 players have taken a snap on defense for the Broncos in 2020 — just how bad has it been on that side of the ball, and where have they been their best on defense this season?
MHR: The Broncos defense remains very good in the red zone where they’re currently the only team in the league to allow less than half of opponent's trips to end in six. Vic Fangio has asked a lot of Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson to try and hold the secondary together. The Broncos will base out of two-high looks on most downs with nickel personnel. From these looks, they may spin down into a single-high safety look late or even post-snap in an effort to cause confusion.
Beyond the two safeties, the Broncos defensive front relies on Shelby Harris and Alexander Johnson to hold things together. Harris is a very good gap shooter who also happens to be the best remaining run defender. Johnson’s strengths lay in attacking. Fangio maximizes his skillset by drawing up simulated pressures or blitzes where 45 can rush. He has the strength and explosiveness to take players like Quenton Nelson into the backfield with him.
S&BP: You picked the Broncos to win last time around, any change in that this time? Give me a final score prediction:
MHR: The Broncos leaned heavily on Lock to carry the day last time around with a fifth-string right tackle and it bit them. I think Shurmur will come into the game with a plan to rely on Melvin Gordon and boot action to help his young quarterback get comfortable. The Raiders will find a way to score points on a depleted secondary, but Josey Jewell steals a possession and Denver closes the season with a 24-23 win.