For several years, a Denver matchup with Oakland was a chance for Peyton Manning to pad his statistics and for his teammates to cruise to an easy win against a franchise that had usually been comfortably ensconced in the AFC West basement. That’s not the case in this Week 5 matchup, as the Broncos are more of a balanced team that don't rely on Manning to throw for 400 yards a week, and the Raiders are a long field goal by Chicago away from being 3-1.
Under new coach Gary Kubiak, Denver has not been about outscoring everybody. Instead, the Broncos are more balanced — on both sides of the ball — perhaps a nod to Manning’s age (39) and the realization that he can no longer dominate opposing defenses. Meanwhile, Oakland is showing signs of life under new coach Jack Del Rio. QB Derek Carr has shown himself to be reliable and filled with promise, and rookie wideout Amari Cooper has been a standout.
Denver at Oakland
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET
Point Spread: Denver -5
Three Things to Watch For
1. Passing Fancy
Whenever Denver takes the field, all eyes are on Manning and his ability to orchestrate games. But thanks to Carr and Cooper, Oakland’s passing game is robust. Carr is completing 62.6 percent of his passes and has thrown for seven TDs against just two picks. Cooper, meanwhile, has caught 24 passes, scored twice and averaged a strong 14.1 yards/catch. They’ll face a strong Denver pass rush and a secondary that already has two pick-sixes this year.
“They have three [defensive backs], not just three, just who come off the bench for them and in other situations that are so talented,” Carr said. “I think the world of those guys. I respect them, but obviously we’re looking forward to competing against them.”
2. Sack and Pillage
Much has been made about the impact of Oakland’s Khalil Mack, who has three sacks and who impacts the game every play, thanks to his disruptive tendencies. But the Raiders have only reached the QB eight times this season. Denver, on the other hand, has 18 QB snares, with DeMarcus Ware (4.5) the main culprit. How well the Broncos control Mack, who can cause problems against the run and the pass, and whether the Raiders can keep Ware at bay will influence the outcome considerably.
3. Kicks the Habit
Although there are some fans who consider special teams something of an adjunct to the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, both Denver and Oakland have benefited greatly from strong kicking games this year. That’s a good thing, since more and more NFL games are being decided by fewer than seven points. In a tight contest, a big leg can make a big difference. Denver’s Brandon McManus is 9-of-9 on placements, including 3-of-3 from 50 yards and beyond. Meanwhile, it’s hard to find a more consistent or powerful leg than Sebastian Janikowski’s. He has made 7-of-7 this year and can be counted on by the Raiders for consistent excellence.
The Raiders have made big strides in just four games and should be 3-1 right now. They will be inhospitable hosts for the Broncos, who must get good offensive balance in order to survive in Oakland. That means Manning, who is completing a solid but unspectacular 63.6 percent of his throws and has already tossed five picks this year, must be efficient, and Ronnie Hillman (4.9 yards/carry) has to provide ground support. Otherwise, the resurgent Denver defense will have to carry the load.
The Raiders have a good one in Carr, and Cooper is already bidding to become an elite target in the league. Oakland needs Latavius Murray (297 yards, 2 TDs) to get loose, and has to hope Mack gets support from his fellow defenders against Manning, or the Denver QB will be able to get comfortable in the pocket. This won’t be the kind of blowout past Broncos-Raiders games have been, but Oakland isn’t quite ready to take this kind of step.
Prediction: Broncos 23, Raiders 17
— Written by Michael Bradley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bradley is a writer and broadcaster based in suburban Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @DailyHombre.