- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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In Week 1, the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos engaged in a lackluster season opener on "Monday Night Football" in which the visiting Raiders ended up winning by three points. Leaving the stadium that night (the last road game ever attended by the Raiders’ late owner, Al Davis), neither squad had the look of a playoff team.
However, after a dizzying and unpredictable first three quarters of the NFL season, Denver and Oakland are engaged in one of the most exciting races in the NFL as we head down the stretch. Both teams are 7-5 and are tied for first place in the AFC West. Both are involved in the AFC wild-card race as well. Let’s look at several key aspects of the race:
Who’s hotter? Few teams in the NFL are hotter than the Broncos. Denver has won six of the seven starts made by quarterback Tim Tebow. Denver has won five straight games. It is the third-longest current streak in the NFL this season behind Green Bay (12 wins in a row) and Houston (six in a row). Oakland was hot until getting completely outplayed at Miami in a 34-14 loss last Sunday. The Raiders went into that game on a three-game win streak.
Who is in a better position? As of now, it’s Denver. According to ESPN’s Playoffs Predictor, Denver is projected to win the AFC West and be the No. 4 seed in the playoffs. It gives Denver a 61 percent chance of making the postseason. Oakland has a 38 percent chance of making the playoffs. However, it is currently projected to be on the outside looking in come January. The Broncos currently have the common-opponents tiebreaker over the Raiders.
What do the remaining schedules look like? The Broncos have three home games and Oakland has two. Denver’s remaining four opponents have a combined record of 26-22. Oakland’s remaining opponents’ record is 29-19. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Oakland’s remaining schedule is tied for the fourth most difficult in the NFL.
It starts Sunday as the Raiders have to play at 12-0 Green Bay and the Broncos host the reeling Chicago Bears, who will be without offensive stars Jay Cutler and Matt Forte. In the final three weeks, Denver hosts New England, plays at Buffalo and hosts Kansas City. Oakland hosts Detroit, plays at Kansas City and hosts San Diego.
The quarterbacks: On paper, there is no doubt Oakland has the advantage at the most important position on the field. Carson Palmer is a traditional pocket passer, and Tebow is a raw quarterback who relies on the option offense more than he does on traditional drop-back passing plays.
But the Tebow-led offense was more impressive than the Palmer-led offense last week. Tebow’s offense is working, and Palmer is still getting used to playing with the Raiders. He has been the quarterback of this team for just a month as Jason Campbell’s injury replacement, and he essentially missed the first half of the season while he stayed away from Cincinnati.
The Raiders gave up two premium draft picks for Palmer, and they expect him to carry the team during this race. That’s why he was acquired. But Denver also fully believes in Tebow’s impact on this offense for the stretch run.
Defensive play: The Broncos’ defense has played a major role during the team's resurgence. Denver allowed Minnesota to pass for 381 yards, but it made several huge plays to help secure the win. This unit was 32nd in the NFL last year in nearly every vital category. But it has been very timely this season.
The Raiders have more talent on defense, but they have been giving up way too many big plays, even in victories. Yes, this unit has the ability to rush the passer extremely well and it is physical, but it needs to play more consistently.
Injury status: The Broncos have had some injuries, but they are fairly healthy right now. Rookie linebacker Von Miller missed last week’s game with a thumb injury, but he is expected to play Sunday.
Oakland has been dealing with several injuries. According to ESPN’s John Clayton, Oakland has missed 65 starts due to injury. It needs to get back skill-position players Darren McFadden, Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore. They are all dealing with foot injuries. McFadden has missed five games, Ford has misused three games and Moore has missed two games. That is a lot of speed that the Raiders are missing.
Coaching; This is first-year Denver coach John Fox’s 10th season as an NFL head coach. He’s been in these battles before with Carolina. This is not unchartered waters for him.
Oakland's Hue Jackson is a rookie head coach, but don’t expect him to back down. He’s a confident coach, and he will have his team ready for the next month. Remember, Jackson predicted an AFC West championship for his team earlier this season. He has a chance to be right … or wrong.
What team has more pressure? Denver hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2005, and Oakland hasn’t been there since 2002. So, both teams should be loose. But I’d think Oakland would be crushed to see Denver beat it out for the title considering Oakland had a better record than Denver did a month ago. Even in the back of their minds, the Broncos couldn’t have imagined this run when the Tebow era started.
Scout’s view: I asked Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. for his thoughts on the race. Here’s what he had to say:
“I would give Denver the edge in three of its four games and Oakland the edge in two of its four games. ... I didn’t think Denver was the better team a week ago, but that was a really dismal performance by the Raiders [at Miami]. And although it was against a dreadful Minnesota secondary, Denver’s passing game is evolving and progressing. So, give me Denver.”
Conclusion: Because there have been countless twists and turns this season in this division, anything could happen. Denver does seem to have the schedule edge, and it is hot. But if Oakland can get healthy, it can finish strong as well. In the end, I expect this race to be settled in Week 17.