When: 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver TV: CBS
As the regular season wraps up, the Oakland Raiders (3-12) are poised for another coaching search as they have missed the postseason for the 11th consecutive season -- they last made it in 2002, when they closed out that season with a loss in Super Bowl XXXVII.
The Denver Broncos are looking to regain some momentum after Monday night’s loss in Cincinnati and need a win to earn a much-needed bye for the first round of the playoffs.
ESPN NFL Nation Raiders reporter Bill Williamson and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold look at Sunday's matchup:
Legwold: The Raiders have shown a little grit under interim coach Tony Sparano. What is the latest on their coaching search and who do you think gets the job?
Williamson: All the speculation is on Jim Harbaugh at this point. There has been talk that it could come down to Michigan or the Raiders once Harbaugh leaves the San Francisco 49ers next week. Securing Harbaugh would be a huge shot in the arm for Oakland. If Oakland owner Mark Davis can’t land Harbaugh, top names on the list might include Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and Rex Ryan, if he is fired by the Jets as expected. Sparano could also be in the mix if some pursuits don’t develop.
Jeff, do you think Del Rio could be a fit for the Raiders?
Legwold: Del Rio certainly wants to be a head coach again. He’s in his third season with the Broncos since a nine-year run as Jacksonville Jaguars coach. In a league where the numbers on offense are climbing with each flip of a calendar page, it can be more difficult for coaches with defensive backgrounds to separate themselves from their peers to become the hot candidates. Del Rio has the head-coaching experience some owners want, but many defensive coaches around the league see a landscape where team owners are far more willing to take a chance on a coordinator with an offensive pedigree. A quality postseason run could push Del Rio more into the mix -- the Broncos are still No. 3 in total defense and No. 2 in run defense after their semi-meltdown in Cincinnati on Monday night -- but the unit needs a signature game, something like a postseason win against New England, to really push Del Rio to the forefront. He fared well as the Denver interim coach last season when John Fox missed four games after open heart surgery, and Del Rio has retained high-powered Bob LaMonte as his agent. In the end, like a lot of coaches searching for a second chance, Del Rio would have to be up front about what he would fix and how he would fix it from his last experience.
In terms of the future for the Raiders, quarterback Derek Carr and linebacker Khalil Mack look to be the kind of building-block players a franchise needs for a rebound. How would you rate their progress, and what is Carr’s standing among his teammates?
Williamson: Mack has been simply outstanding. His statistics don’t jump out, but he’s a coach’s dream. He is always around the play, no matter the situation. I expect him to get more explosive as his career develops. Carr is revered by the entire franchise. He still has a ways to go in his development, but the game is not too big and he’s delivered in some pressure situations. If he continues to learn his progressions and improve against the blitz, he should be an above-average player.
Jeff, have any young players in Denver jumped out to you on the veteran-laden roster?
Legwold: Cornerback Bradley Roby was the Broncos’ first-round pick this past May, and when he arrived, Del Rio simply told him the Broncos had a lot of experienced cornerbacks so he shouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t play much. Instead of wilting at that assessment, Roby went about the business of earning his playing time. He plays in the nickel and dime packages -- he’s played in 75 percent of the defensive snaps this season -- and deserves a long look for the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Roby has been competitive in coverage and physical along the line of scrimmage. Though he has been picked on a little at times, most opposing quarterbacks have not found much success doing it. Also, second-year running back C.J. Anderson went from shaky status in minicamp last spring to the team’s leading rusher. And linebacker Brandon Marshall, who spent most of last season on the team’s practice squad, has played at a Pro Bowl level as an every-down linebacker and is the Broncos’ leading tackler with 110.
Looking at the Raiders' defense, including Mack, how do you think they will come after Peyton Manning this time around? Teams have made it more difficult for Manning to do what he likes to do in the passing game in recent weeks. Do you think the Raiders will use the same defensive game plan they used against Denver last month?
Williamson: Manning has absolutely shredded Oakland in his five games against them as a Bronco. So until proven otherwise, we have to assume that he will have success again Sunday. Denver had a tough time in pass protection at Cincinnati. I’m sure Oakland will try to start its attack by trying to get some pressure with Mack, Justin Tuck and Antonio Smith. Oakland, which has struggled rushing the passer most of this season, had a solid performance against Buffalo. So I’m sure it will try to make Manning as uncomfortable as possible.
I know there is some panic over Manning among the fan base in recent weeks. Are the Broncos concerned?
Legwold: Coach John Fox said this week that Manning is "fine" physically, and when Manning was asked after the loss in Cincinnati if he had any physical issues impacting his play, said he did not. On one hand there is plenty of hand-wringing about Manning with the Broncos’ faithful, about the team’s play in road games this season and in bad weather. He had his first four-interception game since 2010 this past Monday night, and has looked unsettled at times as defenses have tried to force him to throw the ball outside the numbers as much as possible. He had 11 interceptions in the Broncos’ road games this season, and his 15 interceptions overall are his most since he had 17 in 2010 (following 16 picks in 2009). The Broncos are concerned, but they know from a football perspective they have to find an answer for what defenses have done largely since the team’s loss in New England in early November. The teams with the personnel to do it have succeeded in limiting the crossing routes, the catch-and-run plays that are the foundation of the Broncos’ offense. The Broncos don’t see Manning much differently than last season, when he set a record with 55 touchdown passes. The Broncos are also fairly quick to point out that, despite all of the debate on Manning’s health and play, he still leads the league in touchdown passes with 39, and the Broncos are one win away from the No. 2 seed in the AFC.