AFC West rivals close out Week 1
What a week it has been for the Oakland Raiders as they prepare to face the Denver Broncos on "Monday Night Football" to close out Week 1.
Just months after acquiring Antonio Brown from the Pittsburgh Steelers for a third- and a fifth-round pick, the Raiders released Brown on Saturday afternoon, just days before their season opener. This happened after the Raiders took away Brown's guaranteed money and fined him more than $200,000 after an altercation between him and general manager Mike Mayock.
Now Oakland will have to find a way to put the distraction behind them as they will try to pick up their first win of the new campaign.
As for the Broncos, things have been a lot quieter this summer for them as they have a new head coach in Vic Fangio. He is taking over for Vance Joesph, who was fired after Denver went 6-10 last season. The Broncos already have a game-changing defense led by seven-time Pro Bowler Von Miller. The key is can the offense improve enough to get them in contention in a difficult AFC West?
Monday night will be the Raiders' final home opener in Oakland as the team is set to move to Las Vegas in 2020. This also will be their 118th meeting all-time against Denver with the Raiders holding a 63-52-2 advantage. The teams split their two meetings last year with the home team winning each game.
Denver at Oakland
Kickoff: Monday, Sept. 9, 10:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Broncos -2
Three Things to Watch
1. How will Brown saga affect Raiders offense?
For months, the Raiders have been preparing to have Antonio Brown part of their offense against the Broncos. Now that the team released him days before their opener, Oakland head coach Jon Gruden and his staff will have their hands full coming up with a new gameplan to use against the Broncos. An area the Raiders could focus on is their running game.
Oakland selected Josh Jacobs in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Gruden hasn't unlashed Jacobs as of yet since he played limited snaps during the preseason, but he could be the secret weapon the Raiders have been missing. Jacobs' versatility will be a bonus to the as he can not only be productive as a runner in the backfield but as a receiver out of the backfield as well.
With pass rushers like Von Miller and Bradley Chubb lined up on the other side, expect Derek Carr to get the ball out of his hands quickly, which could mean Jacobs should see a lot of targets.
2. Joe Flacco
Since Peyton Manning retired after Denver's victory in Super Bowl 50, the Broncos have been searching for stability at the quarterback position. The team hopes they have that in Flacco, who is a former Super Bowl MVP himself.
The Baltimore Ravens shipped Flacco off to the Broncos back in March. Flacco became expendable after the Ravens benched him midway through last season as first-round pick Lamar Jackson helped lead the team to an AFC North title. Judging by his stats over the years, Flacco's numbers have never been impressive. However, Flacco has gotten the job done in the playoffs (10-5 record, 25 touchdowns, 10 interceptions).
Denver just needs Flacco to take care of the ball and help them drive down the field. The Broncos can rely on Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman on the ground, which will take pressure off of their passing game. If he can do that, maybe Flacco and the Broncos could be a surprise in the AFC.
3. Raiders defense
After the 2018 season, Oakland desperately needed to improve its defense. So the team went out and used two of their three first-round picks on that side of that ball.
At No. 4 overall, the Raiders selected Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell. They also drafted safety Jonathan Abram out of Mississippi State with the 27 pick (acquired in the Amari Cooper trade with Dallas). Both players should see a tremendous amount of playing time on a young Raiders defense. They also need each to come up big on Monday night.
Oakland also signed veteran Lamarcus Joyner to a four-year, $42 million deal. Joyner played last season for a Rams team that won the NFC championship and lost in the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots. Joyner will play both at safety and at a slot nickel position for the Raiders, which has become more common among NFL defenses.
Both the Broncos and Raiders come into Monday night's game with a ton of questions. This game will likely come down to which team can stop the other from running the ball effectively.
Oakland was one of the worst teams in the league at stopping the run a season ago. That doesn't bode well considering the Broncos will likely feature Phillip Lindsay a lot, mixed in with a dose of Royce Freeman. However, this is a different Raiders defense that should improve in that area.
If the Raiders can get pressure on Joe Flacco, that will limit the Broncos offense and keep their defense fresh throughout the game. Oakland has had a ton of distractions during the last week, but expect Jon Gruden and Derek Carr to overcome that and win a division game in front of their home fans.
Prediction: Raiders 23, Broncos 20
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.