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NFL Preview - Oakland (2-4) at Denver (2-4)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Seven weeks into the 2010 NFL season, you could say the Denver Broncos' year is only beginning.
Despite a disappointing 2-4 start that has been defined by injuries and inconsistency, Josh McDaniels' club will kick off the division portion of their schedule on Sunday, when they welcome the longtime rival Oakland Raiders to Invesco Field at Mile High.
Beginning on Sunday, six of the Broncos' 10 remaining games are within the AFC West, a crowded division in which all four teams are separated by just one game in the win column. The Chiefs are the current pace-setters at 3-2, with the Broncos, Raiders and Chargers are trailing just behind at 2-4.
There is an argument to be made for each of the four West combatants standing atop the division when all is said and done, none more persuasive than that involving Denver, which comes off a narrow 24-20 home loss to a New York Jets team that many would rank as the NFL's best at this stage.
A beleaguered defense that was missing key pieces like safety Brian Dawkins (knee) and cornerback Andre' Goodman (thigh) made life exceedingly difficult for the Jets, who committed three turnovers after not registering a single miscue in any of their previous four games.
Fill-ins like cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson and pass rusher Jason Hunter both had interceptions of Mark Sanchez, the Jets' total of 319 yards of total offense was their lowest since Week 1, and running back LaDainian Tomlinson (16 carries, 55 yards) scored two touchdowns, including the game-winner late in the fourth quarter, but failed to do much else.
Offensively, the Broncos competed on a day when quarterback Kyle Orton (14- of-34, 209 yards, 1 TD) had his struggles. The renewed life of a running game that finished with 145 yards, including a team-best 48 on 12 carries from Knowshon Moreno, certainly helped.
Yet it was a second straight loss for a team that fell victim to a controversial late pass interference penalty against safety Renaldo Hill, which set up Tomlinson's game-winning TD.
The Raiders, meanwhile, missed their share of opportunities as well.
One Sunday after indicating that perhaps they were getting over the hump in a win that ended their 13-game losing streak to the Chargers, Oakland took a disconcerting step back in a 17-9 loss to the Bay Area rival San Francisco 49ers. The defeat kept the Silver and Black from stringing together what would have been their first back-to-back victories since the final two games of 2008.
Jason Campbell (8-of-21 passing, 83 yards, 2 INT) played poorly while battling a knee injury, and running back Michael Bush (20 carries, 47 yards) failed to complement him for a team that managed just 179 yards of total offense.
An oft-problematic run defense surrendered 149 yards on 25 carries to Niners running back Frank Gore, exacerbating the situation.
With Bruce Gradkowski still dealing with a shoulder problem, Oakland could be turning to former first-round bust Kyle Boller, who made the team as a third- stringer after a strong preseason, at quarterback this week.
Boller is 20-26 as an NFL starter, last won while with the Ravens back in 2007, and is 0-12 in road starts since leading Baltimore to a win at the Jets on Nov. 14, 2004.
Whoever plays QB will be trying to lead the Raiders to a 2-0 start within the AFC West.
The Raiders lead the all-time regular season series with Denver, which dates back to 1960, by a 56-41-2 count, including an unconventional split of the home-and-home in each of the last two seasons. The Broncos were 23-3 winners when they visited the Oakland Coliseum in Week 3 of last year, with the Raiders returning the favor with a 20-19 victory in Denver in Week 15. The road team has won four consecutive games in the series since 2007, when both home teams prevailed. On Sunday, the Raiders will be attempting to pull off their first three-game winning streak in Denver since prevailing there in four straight contests from 1974-77. The Silver and Black last won back-to-back games over their longtime AFC West rivals in 2002.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have split a pair of postseason matchups, with Denver winning the 1977 AFC Championship, 20-17, and the then-Los Angeles Raiders prevailing in a 1993 AFC First-Round Playoff, 42-24.
Raiders head coach Tom Cable is 2-1 against the Broncos, while Denver's McDaniels is 1-1 against both Cable and the Raiders as a head coach.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Though he would nominally be playing due to injuries to Campbell (509 passing yards, 2 TD, 4 INT) and Gradkowski (709 passing yards, 4 TD, 4 INT), there has to be some intrigue about what Boller might be able to do after he performed well in the preseason. The former Cal star completed 26-of-43 (60.5 percent) of his passes for 360 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in the warm- up period, for a fine 102.9 passer rating. If he gets the nod, Boller would be passing to a crew of pass-catchers led by tight end Zach Miller (30 receptions, 3 TD) and wideouts Louis Murphy (19 receptions, 1 TD) and Darrius Heyward-Bey (14 receptions). Miller had a streak of three consecutive games with a touchdown catch snapped last week, but is having a Pro Bowl-type season. Murphy was held to one catch for four yards in San Francisco though he was credited with a 43-yard rush as well. Clearly, Oakland needs a strong effort from a running game that could be getting Darren McFadden (392 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 2 TD) back after a two-game absence due to a hamstring injury. The presence of McFadden, who is averaging a healthy 4.6 yards per rush, would likely spell fewer touches for Bush (204 rushing yards, 2 TD). The Oakland o-line, which has allowed a bloated 18 sacks on the year, remains this attack's weakest link.
The Broncos' ability to move to 1-0 in the West could be largely contingent on the team's health as they enter this game. Dawkins, Goodman, safety Darcel McBath (ankle) and linebackers Robert Ayers (foot) and Wesley Woodyard (hamstring) all missed last week's game, and cornerback Champ Bailey sat out Wednesday's practice with rib issues. The depleted Broncos did manage to hold their own defensively against the Jets, however, with linebacker D.J. Williams (56 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and lineman Marcus Thomas (11 tackles, 1 sack) among those starring in defeat. Williams had a game-high 11 tackles and a sack in the defeat, while Thomas contributed two tackles and a sack as he helped keep Tomlinson in check. If Bailey (14 tackles, 1 INT) is limited, pressure will be on cornerbacks Perrish Cox (21 tackles, 1 INT) and Nate Jones (30 tackles) to perform, with safety Hill (23 tackles) helping out on the back end. The Broncos' pass rush has mostly struggled this year, but Hunter (24 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) is among those who should be able to make some noise against Oakland's poor pass-blocking group.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Though the Broncos are still last in the league in rushing offense (67.3 yards per game) and yards per carry (2.7), last week's 145-yard day on the ground perhaps provided some evidence that Denver can achieve some offensive balance. The unit must get consistent yards from the former first-rounder Moreno (159 rushing yards, 2 TD), who has battled hamstring problems since the preseason and is still in search of his first career 100-yard game. Moreno carried a total of 40 times for 132 yards and a touchdown in two outings against the Raiders last season. That said, throwing the football will likely remain Denver's preferred mode of travel, with Orton (1942 passing yards, 9 TD, 3 INT) looking to light it up along with his four-strong receiving corps of Brandon Lloyd (34 receptions, 3 TD), Eddie Royal (32 receptions, 2 TD), Jabar Gaffney (37 receptions, 1 TD) and rookie Demaryius Thomas (14 receptions, 2 TD). Royal could be a question mark for Sunday due to a groin issue. Gaffney was high-man with six catches for 81 yards against the Jets last week, while the first-rounder Thomas made his only grab of the day stand up for a 17-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter. Orton has been sacked 13 times on the year, including one last week.
The Broncos haven't run with much proficiency this season, but they might want to think about changing their rush-pass balance against a Raiders team that is 30th in the NFL against the rush (149.5 yards per game) and has allowed 200- plus ground yards on two separate occasions this year. The addition of rookie middle linebacker Rolando McClain (33 tackles) and presence of defensive tackles Richard Seymour (23 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Tommy Kelly (24 tackles, 1.5 sacks) has not had a very measurable effect on a run defense that was supposed to be improved this season. If Orton continues to wing it on a frequent basis, a quality Oakland secondary is going to be busy. Cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha (11 tackles), Stanford Routt (21 tackles, 1 INT) and Chris Johnson (6 tackles) will likely be on the field for much of the day, with safeties Tyvon Branch (39 tackles, 1 sack) and Michael Huff (30 tackles, 1 sack) lending support over the top. Within the pass rush, Matt Shaughnessy (19 tackles, 4 sacks) has emerged as the team's top sack man, and the second-year- pro has a sack in three of his last four games.
Apart from Miller, one of the league's underrated talents at the tight end position, there's really not a lot you can trust from a fantasy perspective on the Oakland roster. How much McFadden would be involved if he returns is anyone's guess, which makes using Bush problematic as well.
On the Broncos side, Orton and his top three receivers - Lloyd, Gaffney and Royal - have all been consistent fantasy contributors this year, though owners of Royal will want to monitor his injury status. Moreno might be worth taking a flier on this week against a struggling Raiders run defense. Kicker Matt Prater (11-of-12 field goals), who nailed a 59-yarder last week, has been among the best in the business this year and could be on a Pro Bowl trajectory.
Though the winner of this game will emerge at just 3-4, that team will be able to call itself a contender, and do so seriously. In a division that is once again among the NFL's weakest, eight or nine wins could be enough to raise a championship banner, but winning contests within the AFC West is going to be integral. Inasmuch, look for both teams to display plenty of urgency on Sunday. The Broncos and Raiders each have plenty of deficiencies, and both have proven capable of notching quality wins, so probably best to err on the side of homefield advantage here. Look for this one to come down to the last drive or two, and for Denver to pull it out.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 24, Raiders 23
10/21 13:40:06 ET
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