NFL Preview - Oakland (4-9) at Denver (8-5)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - While the Denver Broncos have been able to find success in the first year of a new era, the Oakland Raiders appear on the verge of ending one that's been a colossal failure thus far.
The Broncos will attempt to move one step closer towards earning a playoff berth in this Sunday's AFC West clash with the wayward Raiders, who'll be starting their third quarterback this season when they visit Invesco Field at Mile High.
Oakland finally seemed to have found a solution to a long-standing problem at the quarterback position in gritty journeyman Bruce Gradkowski, who guided the team to notable wins over current AFC North leader Cincinnati and defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh during a three-start span from November 22- December 6. However, the offseason pickup's season may have come to an unfortunate end after he tore ligaments in both knees during the first half of last Sunday's 34-13 loss to the Washington Redskins.
Gradkowski's injury was thought to provide a last-ditch opportunity for JaMarcus Russell, the former No. 1 overall draft choice who was supplanted as the Raiders' regular signal-caller last month following a string of subpar performances. That second chance will have to wait a little longer, however, after head coach Tom Cable's surprising decision to name retread Charlie Frye as his starter under center for Sunday's matchup.
Russell didn't make much progress towards removing his label of an expensive bust upon relieving Gradkowski last weekend, with the underachieving 24-year- old mustering only 74 yards with an interception on 10-of-16 passing while taking six sacks in two quarters of work. And with Cable favoring Frye, a former washout in Cleveland who's made only two starts over the past three seasons, one must wonder whether the Raiders' patience with their intended franchise triggerman has finally reached the breaking point.
Frye will be trying to shake off the rust against a stout Denver defense that limited a Russell-led attack to a paltry 137 total yards and nine first downs in a 23-3 victory at the Oakland Coliseum back in Week 3. The Broncos intercepted the great Peyton Manning three times a week ago, although the three-time league MVP did throw for four touchdown passes to lead the still- unbeaten Indianapolis Colts to a 28-16 triumph.
That loss threw a wrench in Denver's plans to capture its first AFC West title since 2005, with the club now trailing scorching San Diego by two games with three remaining in the regular season. The 8-5 Broncos are still on solid footing in regard to obtaining a Wild Card berth, leading a pack of four teams by one game in a battle for two such spots.
Denver hasn't been able to generate much momentum towards a playoff run, however, as Sunday's setback to the Colts was its fifth in seven outings following a sensational 6-0 start under rookie head coach Josh McDaniels, tabbed by the organization in January as the replacement for longtime sideline boss Mike Shanahan.
The Raiders lead the all-time regular season series with Denver, which dates back to 1960, by a 55-41-2 count, but were 23-3 home losers when the teams met in Week 3. The clubs embarked on an unconventional split of last year's home- and-home, with the Broncos taking a 41-14 decision in the Bay Area in Week 1, then dropping a stunning 31-10 result at Invesco Field at Mile High during Week 12. The Broncos' most recent win home win in the season occurred in 2007.
Denver is 22-7 against Oakland since the 1995 season.
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.
Cable is 1-1 against the Broncos, while McDaniels is 1-0 against both Cable and the Raiders as a head coach.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Frye will be asked to breathe some life into an Oakland offense that ranks next-to-last in the NFL in scoring (11.9 ppg), total yards (246.2 ypg) and passing yards (144.6 ypg), but draws a rather tough assignment. Not only has the seldom-used fifth-year pro attempted no passes this season and thrown only 33 over the previous two years, he probably won't have the services of leading receiver Zach Miller (50 receptions, 2 TD) on Sunday after the young tight end sustained a concussion against the Redskins last week. That means the Raiders figure to rely heavily on running backs Justin Fargas (483 rushing yards, 3 TD, 17 receptions) and Darren McFadden (251 rushing yards, 1 TD, 17 receptions), but the duo will have to improve on the combined 42 yards on 17 carries it produced in the Week 14 loss. Oakland's run game has suffered in the absence of guard Robert Gallery, the team's best run-blocker who landed on injured reserve last week after undergoing back surgery, and the line surrendered eight sacks to the Redskins in an awful display of protection last Sunday. If Frye gets adequate time, he'll be firing in the direction of a still-developing group of receivers consisting of Chaz Schilens (12 receptions, 1 TD), Johnnie Lee Higgins (13 receptions) and rookie Louis Murphy (24 receptions, 4 TD).
A Denver defense that's allowed the second-fewest passing yards in the league (183.3 ypg) will provide a stern challenge for Frye, much like it did to Russell in the September meeting between these teams. The displaced Oakland starter mustered a meager 61 yards and was intercepted twice in that game, with the Raiders' longest gain of the day going for just 18 yards. Veterans Champ Bailey (65 tackles, 1 INT, 10 PD) and Andre' Goodman (33 tackles, 4 INT, 14 PD) form a quality cornerback tandem, while 36-year-old safety Brian Dawkins (92 tackles, 2 INT, 11 PD) continues to play at a Pro Bowl level in spite of his advanced age. The secondary, which will likely be without strong safety Renaldo Hill (53 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) this week after he sprained an ankle in the Indianapolis game, gets plenty of help from pass-rushing terror Elvis Dumervil (45 tackles, 3 forced fumbles), the NFL's leader this season with 15 sacks from his outside linebacker spot. The Broncos can be tough against the run as well, with inside linebackers D.J. Williams (97 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Andra Davis (72 tackles, 3.5 sacks) heading up a front seven that's yielded only 81 rushing yards over the past three weeks.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Denver ran at will on the Raiders in the Week 3 victory over its longtime rival, and expect the Broncos to employ the same game plan come Sunday even though running back Correll Buckhalter (582 rushing yards, 1 TD, 27 receptions), who racked up 108 yards on only 14 rushes that day, won't be available this week due to a high ankle sprain. Talented rookie Knowshon Moreno (837 rushing yards, 19 receptions, 6 total TD) will carry the backfield load on Sunday, with an assist from one-time Raider LaMont Jordan (59 rushing yards), as the Broncos try to duplicate a 215-yard effort on the ground in their last go-around with Oakland. Steady quarterback Kyle Orton (2904 passing yards, 16 TD, 8 INT) will still be firing plenty of passes towards standout wide receiver Brandon Marshall (86 receptions, 1008 yards, 9 TD), who set an NFL record with an astounding 21 receptions last week and is on pace for a third straight season of over 100 catches. The 2008 Pro Bowler ended his historic day with a career-best 200 yards and two touchdowns against the Colts. Wideouts Eddie Royal (34 receptions) and Jabar Gaffney (32 receptions) and tight end Tony Scheffler (28 receptions, 2 TD) hold down supporting roles in Denver's 19th-ranked passing offense (213.2 ypg).
Stopping the run has been a season-long chore for the Raiders, who have given up a league-high 20 rushing touchdowns and an unhealthy average of 154.2 yards per game (30th overall) on the ground. Strong safety Tyvon Branch (99 tackles, 1 sack) and middle linebacker Kirk Morrison (101 tackles) recorded 10 and nine stops, respectively, in Oakland's September bout with the Broncos, and the team's two leading tacklers should be busy once again this weekend. Oakland has performed better in the area of pass defense, with second-year man Trevor Scott (32 tackles, 6 sacks) emerging as a edge-rushing force since being inserted as a starter at strongside linebacker last month and former first- round pick Michael Huff (51 tackles, 3 INT, 12 PD) finally showing signs of becoming the impact free safety the Raiders envisioned when they grabbed him with the seventh overall pick in 2006. Oakland also sports one of the league's elite cover corners in Nnamdi Asomugha (32 tackles, 1 INT) as well as a pair of accomplished pass rushers in ends Richard Seymour (37 tackles, 4 sacks) and Greg Ellis (24 tackles, 5 sacks).
Although odds are he won't match last Sunday's superlative showing, Marshall is an obvious must-start here as the unquestioned go-to receiver on the Broncos roster. Moreno may be the Denver player to own this week, however, as the rookie gets to face a porous run defense and won't have Buckhalter around as a threat to his touches. Orton is more of an option in leagues that start two quarterbacks, and no other Broncos receiver is consistent enough to recommend, especially in a game where the team will probably be running the ball often. On the Oakland side, McFadden could be worth a look as a flex alternative this week, as the disappointing sophomore may wind up as Frye's primary target with Miller expected to be inactive. The quarterback change brings additional risk to a group of Raider receivers that don't warrant much consideration anyway, and Fargas should only be used by the most desperate of owners. Give a thumbs-up to the Denver defense, though, with a most juicy matchup on tap.
Credit Cable for his persistence in trying to convey a message to Russell, whose work ethic and leadership skills have come into question, but it's highly unlikely that Frye will be the answer to the Raiders' lingering offensive woes. Even if Oakland's new quarterback is able to acquit himself well on Sunday, the Silver and Black simply don't have enough reliable offensive playmakers or the defensive personnel to pose a serious threat to a Denver team that's pretty solid in all phases and needs a win to enhance its playoff credentials. The Raiders will likely struggle to move the football and put up points once again, and McDaniels proved two weeks ago in Kansas City that he's unwilling to show any mercy to an opponent that's down and out.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 30, Raiders 6
12/17 16:28:26 ET