By Sam McPherson
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has already broken the single-season passing touchdowns record, and he will have a chance on Sunday against the Oakland Raiders to break the single-season passing yardage record as well.
The Silver and Black can prevent the Broncos from earning the No. 1 overall seed in the American Football Conference playoffs with a win at the O.co Coliseum in the 2013 season finale, but it won’t be easy, obviously: Manning and his friends have ripped up the NFL this season, and the Raiders aren’t exactly good on defense.
Denver is ranked at the top of the league in many offensive categories: the Broncos averaged 457.3 yards per game and 38.1 points each time out. It’s not so much a matter of stopping them, for slowing them down is your best bet. Through the air, Denver puts up 340.7 yards every game, and the Broncos toss in 116.6 yards on the ground, too (for a pedestrian 14th-best ranking in the NFL).
Manning is fallible, of course, but he’s also going to be the league MVP again: he’s tossed 51 TDs this year, amidst 5211 yards. But Denver has lost three times, and everyone knows Peyton’s history of struggling at key times. But the question is whether or not the Raiders defense can force one of those “key moments” upon Manning in Week 17.
Oakland’s defense played well enough against the Chargers last week on the road in San Diego, and they will need a similar effort int heir final game of 2013. The Raiders are 18th in total defense this year, and they’ve played some pretty good offensive teams this season: Indianapolis, Denver, San Diego (twice), Philadelphia, Dallas. Yes, the Broncos are the best of them, however, and Oakland is 25th against the pass (albeit 11th against the run).
Manning’s arm is complemented by the legs of Knowshon Moreno (1015 yards, 4.3 per carry) and Montee Ball (487 yards, 4.4 per carry). So when Denver must run, they can — they just prefer to pass with the weapons at their disposal: wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (86 catches, 1317 yards, 12 TDs), Eric Decker (83-1261-10) and Wes Welker (73-778-10) are a formidable trio, and tight end Julius Thomas (60-752-12) is a beast over the deep middle.
(Welker will probably not play due to a concussion, but Manning can survive with the other players if he has to, obviously.)
So, that’s the task for the Raiders defense: stop Peyton and his friends. Most teams this year haven’t fared well against the Broncos.
Oakland probably doesn’t have the weapons to outduel Denver, either, even if the Broncos defense isn’t that strong. Denver is 22nd overall in the NFL, giving up 362.7 yards a game, although it is clear that a lot of that yardage has been earned with opponents way behind in the second half of games this season. This is why the Broncos are eighth against the run (104.1 yards per outing) but just 28th against the pass: teams need to play catchup for most of the game against them.
And Denver has just lost star linebacker Von Miller to a season-ending knee injury, so that defensive unit will be weakened in Week 17 against the Raiders as the Broncos look forward to a week off during the first round of the playoffs. They’ve already earned that. Even so, linebacker Danny Trevathan has 123 tackles this season, and defensive end Shaun Phillips has ten sacks. When they have a big lead, Denver can just sit back and play pass defense while teeing off the opposing quarterback.
The Broncos have lost three times this year, so they’re not infallible: a loss at Indianapolis when they fell behind 36-17 in the fourth quarter before falling 39-33, a loss at New England when they blew a 24-0 halftime lead and lost 34-31 in OT, and a loss at home to the Chargers when they fell behind 24-10 in the third before losing 27-20. Each of those teams has a dynamic offense with at least one major star on the roster, however, and that’s something the Raiders lack in terms of offensive firepower.
(Manning did throw one interception in each of those three losses, so Oakland should try to start there, perhaps.)
In the Week 3 matchup between these two teams back on September 23, the Raiders fell behind 27-7 at halftime before losing 37-21. Matt Flynn was still the backup QB then — he has started the last four games for the Green Bay Packers — and the Broncos run defense was very stout, allowing just 49 carries on 17 attempts. Starting QB Terrelle Pryor had 36 of those yards on just four carries, and current starting running back Rashad Jennings didn’t get a carry in that game.
And the Raiders have announced that Pryor will start the finale, over Matt McGloin — that may help with the running game plan, of course.
Oakland would be smart to tire out Denver’s defense as much as possible with a steady dose of both Jennings and Darren McFadden (if possible), and then Pryor hopefully can exploit the soft(er) Broncos secondary. Throw in a few turnovers for Peyton, and maybe the Oakland organization go out with a win in 2013.
Otherwise, it will be a long offseason if the team loses its sixth straight (and eight of nine) to end the year.
For more Raiders news and updates, visit Raiders Central.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering all things Oakland A’s. His work can be found on Examiner.com.