Oakland Raiders face real first test when they host the Denver Broncos in AFC West prime-time clash
In what could be their swan song in Oakland, the 6-2 Raiders are off to their best start since Jon Gruden’s penultimate season as boss – a 12-4 finish in 2000 that ended in a conference title game defeat to the eventual Super Bowl XXXV champion Ravens.
Here come the Raiders, then, or have they already arrived?
We’re sticking with the former – for now – but that could change Sunday night, when the Black Hole rudely welcomes its bitter rivals, the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos and co-AFC West leaders, for perhaps the final time.
Derek Carr willed Oakland to its sixth win – and a still-perfect 5-0 road mark – in Week 8 over the Buccaneers with one of the great quarterbacking performances of this or any era. With 513 yards, four touchdowns and no picks, Carr joined Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle and future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger as the only passers in NFL history with that type of video game stat line next to his name.
All due respect to Carr and the Raiders, that was the Buccaneers, the sixth conquest of an opponent with a .500 or worse record by Jack Del Rio’s troops. Suffice to say, the battlegrounds, despite being closer to home, grow increasingly treacherous ahead, starting Sunday night.
Oakland in Week 14 last season snapped an eight-game losing streak versus Denver, 15-12 at Mile High, capitalizing on a Khalil Mack attack and clean, yet choppy, outing by Carr. It was Carr’s first win in four tries against the Broncos. The division’s second-best club the past several years, the Chiefs, have also had the number of Carr’s Raiders with a 5-1 record since 2014.
Thus, while beating Trevor Siemian and the Broncos still might not quash lingering concerns over Oakland’s slowly improving defense, and only Del Rio’s message being received by his players can answer questions about the NFL’s least disciplined team, it would certainly serve as the first signature win, and some needed validation, on the Raiders’ resume.
For the Broncos, whose defense has thus far withstood heavy offseason turnover to largely resemble last year’s elite group, it’s their division, conference and league until someone takes it from them. But it feels like this is Oakland’s best opportunity during Denver’s five-year reign to do just that.
Despite their brutal four-game losing streak before the bye, the Ravens are a win at home over Pittsburgh from a first-place tie in the AFC North. That says more about the surprising struggles of the AFC North – a strong candidate in the offseason to be the best division in football – than any silver lining John Harbaugh’s club can extract from its recent performances. But Baltimore, with Terrell Suggs, Ronnie Stanley, Marshal Yanda and C.J. Mosley, among others, set to return after the week off, will be healthier. So too will the Steelers, who get a major shot in the arm at the skill positions with Ladarius Green, Sammie Coates, Markus Wheaton and DeAngelo Williams all mending and ready to compete to be the beneficiaries in an offense with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. What about Big Ben? Harbaugh says he’s preparing for Roethlisberger to start, and while we’re not in the betting business at PFW, that’s where the smart money resides. Roethlisberger is the big name, but Cameron Heyward left arguably a larger void as far as Pittsburgh’s inability to stop LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi during its own two-game slide. Heyward is also expected back, but rest assured Baltimore’s interim coordinator Marty Mornhinweg expects Baltimore’s lifeless run game to regain its pulse, perhaps with Kenneth Dixon taking on a larger role.
Speed rush: Doug Pederson’s Eagles let one get away versus the Cowboys and now must knock off the Giants on the road to prevent distancing themselves further from Dallas and Big Blue, which dealt Big ‘D’ its only defeat. The Giants, back on local soil and fresh off the bye following an improved defensive effort, need to get Eli Manning and the offense going after several uninspired showings. … Buffalo and Indianapolis, both at their season’s crossroads, head to unfamiliar Seattle and Green Bay, respectively, of all places desperately seeking new life. … Credit Carolina for clawing back with a resounding defensive stand versus Arizona. Going cross-country is never easy, but Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott replicating that suffocating showing against the Rams’ putrid offense shouldn’t be terribly difficult, either. … Ditto for the other NFC South team on life support, New Orleans, which takes its high-flying offense and disturbing defense to the woeful Niners.