When it comes to the Denver Broncos (9-3) and Oakland Raiders (3-9), throw out the records. These bitter AFC West rivals, who square off on NFL Network on Thursday night (8:20 p.m. ET), hate each other, and the fuel of emotions has helped spark a few wacky upsets. Both teams will definitely bring effort, intensity and enthusiasm; this backyard brawl could produce fireworks in Oakland Coliseum.
Here are my three keys to the game:
1) Will the Broncos bring their A-game against the Raiders?
The Broncos have already clinched the AFC West title. They're facing a hapless Raiders squad that has dropped five in a row and was manhandled in the teams' initial meeting this season. Broncos coach John Fox must convince his troops to ward off complacency. To get his team focused, he must punch the right buttons and get players motivated, so that they'll come out with the effort and energy needed to blow the Raiders out of the building. Peyton Manning will certainly help spread Fox's message, challenging his teammates to start fast on both sides of the ball. If the Broncos are locked in on their assignments, we will see crisp football from the opening snap with few mental mistakes, penalties or turnovers. If the Broncos avoid the self-inflicted miscues that accompany poor performances, Denver shouldn't have any problem dispensing with the Raiders on the road.
2) Can Knowshon Moreno carry the load as the Broncos' feature back?
When Willis McGahee went down to injury, the Broncos were robbed of their leading rusher and primary backfield weapon. McGahee was averaging 4.4 yards per rushing attempt prior to going on injured reserve and had amassed three 100-yard outings in the Broncos' first 10 games. To compensate for McGahee's loss, the Broncos will need Moreno to step into the role as the primary ball carrier and deliver solid results. He has shown flashes in two starts since McGahee's injury, rushing for 154 yards on 40 attempts. In addition, he has tallied eight receptions for 40 yards, displaying a solid overall game that allows him to stay on the field in every situation. That two-game sample size isn't enough to provide a true picture of Moreno's ability to fill the role, however, and a strong performance against the Raiders will go a long way toward solidifying his spot in the lineup. If he can top the 100-yard mark on 20 or more carries, the Broncos will walk away from this game feeling better about their chances of utilizing a balanced offensive approach down the stretch.
3) How will the Raiders attempt to slow down Peyton Manning?
Manning has a keen understanding of defensive fronts and coverage and is one of the most difficult quarterbacks to play against. He is a master of breaking down pre-snap disguises and routinely exploits defensive tactics by changing plays at the line of scrimmage. Last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers attempted to throw Manning off by aligning in the same pre-snap look (Cover 2) on every play. The approach certainly affected Manning in the first half; the Buccaneers were able to stay close into the third quarter. Given the success of those tactics, the Raiders must decide whether to bluff various defensive looks before the snap or line up and play vanilla coverage. How well the Raiders pull off their pre-snap tactics will play a huge role in determining the Broncos' offensive production.
The Broncos are on a roll, and Manning has been in a groove. The Raiders will need to mount a phenomenal effort to pull off an upset at home. While I expect the Black Hole to rock Thursday night, I don't believe the Raiders have enough ammunition to keep up with the Broncos' high-powered offense. Manning is intent on getting his squad on track heading into the postseason, and this game could get out of hand in the second half.