ALAMEDA, Calif. -- The Denver Broncos are playing for home-field advantage in the playoffs and a chance for quarterback Peyton Manning to add to his historic, record-setting season. The Oakland Raiders are playing out the string on an 11th consecutive year without a winning season and, perhaps, the coaching life of Dennis Allen.
Opposites attract? It depends upon your perspective … and allegiance.
ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez break down Sunday’s regular-season finale at the O.co Coliseum.
Gutierrez: Manning has obviously already set the single-season touchdown record (51) and will most likely set the mark for most passing yards in a season this weekend. If and when he does that, do you think coach John Fox pulls him from the game to save him for the playoffs, or is Manning too much of a competitor to sit?
Legwold: Paul, Fox has already spent plenty of time this week telling his players all that matters is Sunday’s game, that there’s plenty of time to worry about the postseason in the postseason. His fuel has been a lackluster effort in a Thursday night loss to the Chargers two weeks ago when many with the team felt that the players were more concerned with the upcoming break that weekend than handling the business at hand. The Broncos caught a break later that weekend when the Patriots lost, so Denver still has the inside track for home-field advantage in the postseason. They need the win Sunday to guarantee it. And with the Patriots-Bills game kicking off at the same time, it’s likely that the scoreboard will dictate who sits and when, including Manning. They would like Manning to have the record, but all involved, including Manning, want home-field advantage. They want opponents to have to come in and face their no-huddle at altitude. So if they get things in hand, they will pull some players out. If it’s a close game and the Patriots are winning, or in a tight game, they’ll likely play it straight with the starters.
What do you think Dennis Allen’s future is and will this game have any bearing on that?
Gutierrez: That’s the million-dollar question, Jeff. Put it this way: Owner Mark Davis is taking a wait-and-see approach to this weekend. Obviously, he’s not thrilled with the prospect of the Raiders losing six straight and eight of nine to end the season and go 4-12 for a second consecutive year. But the understanding two years ago when Davis hired general manager Reggie McKenzie and McKenzie, in turn, hired Allen, was that this was a three- to four-year project, hence Allen getting a four-year contract. Of course, Davis has said he’s patient, but he wants to see progress, not regression. It’s hard to say the Raiders have progressed this season because while they have played hard for Allen, they have not necessarily played smart. Unless Davis already has someone else lined up, it’s hard to imagine him pulling the plug on Allen, especially if it goes against the wishes of McKenzie, who is intrinsically linked to the coach since hiring him and calling him “my guy” in January 2011.
On the surface, it seems that the Broncos losing Von Miller to a knee injury would be a crippling blow to their Super Bowl hopes. But they were 6-0 during his suspension. What’s the vibe on the Broncos’ championship designs sans Miller?
Legwold: The defense has spent much of the season listening to the idea that they are the brown socks to what is otherwise a spectacular black tuxedo. They are a bit tired of the premise and seem intent on showing people otherwise. But until they do so in a meaningful game, they’re going to continue to hear it. Even with Miller in the lineup they had not always played the way defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has said they should. They have speed, they have athleticism, but they also have a lot of specialists of sorts -- guys who do one or two things very well. It has meant the Broncos are always sending players into the game in waves, and at times all those personnel groupings have meant some coverage busts or assignment errors. But they have played better of late, and against the Texans they posted season lows for points and yards allowed. Overall, they’ll likely have to take some more risks in the pass rush without Miller, so they need their secondary to be up to that challenge in man-coverage situations. And they need Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips to lift their games. Those two players, more than most, have to make a difference as the Broncos head into the postseason without Miller.
The Raiders will have Terrelle Pryor at quarterback. Is this any kind of audition for him over the long term, and will the Raiders be in the market for a quarterback come free agency or the draft?
Gutierrez: Well, if you take any stock in what Pryor’s agent, Jerome Stanley, said earlier this week, Allen is playing Pryor in hopes of him failing. The theory being that Allen would then look justified in benching his client in favor of undrafted rookie Matt McGloin earlier in the season, after Pryor went down with a sprained MCL in his right knee. Pryor distanced himself from such talk and Allen called the claim “the stupidest thing I’ve ever frickin' heard.”
The official reason Allen gave for giving Pryor the start in the season finale? He’s healthy now, they got enough of an evaluation on McGloin -- who started the previous six games -- and Pryor gives the Raiders the best shot to win against the Broncos. In fact, Allen said he thought McGloin showed enough to be a part of the Raiders’ future. Of course, that’s with Allen as coach. He said no such thing about Pryor. So in a way, you could call this an audition of sorts. But even if the Raiders are not quite sure whether their quarterback of the future is on the roster at the moment, it’s obvious that McGloin’s skill set better fits the type of offense Allen wants to run. I expect the Raiders to be players in the market this offseason for a veteran free-agent quarterback to bridge the gap next year … unless they draft a quarterback they expect to be a franchise savior.
My 8-year-old son and my 5-year-old daughter love the song so, of course, they desperately want to know "What Does the [Coach] Fox Say"? Me, I want to know what he says regarding his midseason health scare and whether it’s changed his approach to coaching?
Legwold: Oh, what does the Fox say indeed. Well, he says “next man up" and “it’s a bigger, stronger, faster league" a lot. Because his condition -- a faulty aortic valve -- was something he was born with, it was also something he had dealt with and knew about for the past 20 years or so. He had open-heart surgery and took a four-game leave of absence. He returned in the days leading up to the Broncos’ Dec. 8 game against the Tennessee Titans. He says he feels better than ever now that he’s had the valve replaced, that he has more energy now than he’s had in a long time. So it hasn’t affected his schedule in that regard. But he has told the team’s medical staff and his family that he’s “going to be smart about it," that if he feels poorly, he will take action even if that means leaving for the day. This week the medical staff sent Fox home Monday because he had flu-like symptoms, and as Fox said “they didn’t want me infecting everyone," but he said he’s had no issues with his heart in his return and has worked his former schedule, including coaching from the sidelines.
Pro football can be a tough business when the playoffs are no longer a carrot for their efforts. How do you think the Raiders will perform in this one? Will they take more risks? Play with some emotion?
Gutierrez: As noted earlier, the Raiders have not quit on the season, as many players did a year ago. They just have not played very smart, as evidenced by their season-high 12 penalties (on 15 flags thrown at them) at the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. I think they’ll show up; I just think they hit the wall the Sunday before Thanksgiving, when Oakland’s defense allowed the Tennessee Titans to drive 80 yards in six minutes for a game-winning TD. I asked Charles Woodson what there was, exactly, to play for and he smiled sadly, tilted his head and said it was about having fun, trying to get one last W and putting something positive on tape … I assume for future potential employers. Yes, Woodson is one of 17 pending free agents. With Allen’s future potentially on the line, I expect Oakland to empty its playbook, especially with Pryor at quarterback. The question, then, is whether the Raiders leave themselves open on defense by blitzing Manning with aplomb.