ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos, who spent the week with 20 players listed on the injury report (or 37.7 percent of the roster), could certainly use a weekend without a game before they begin whatever becomes of their playoff run.
And to earn that coveted bye during the wild-card weekend, they will have to defeat the Oakland Raiders Sunday in Sports Authority Field at Mile High. With a win, the Broncos can also finish out the regular season 8-0 at home for just the sixth time since the schedule went to 16 games and the first time since 2005.
"There is a lot at stake, there usually is, you only get 16 of these things," said Broncos head coach John Fox. "And a division opponent, a home record, a lot of things ride on this game. We're looking to play well."
With that, some things to keep an eye on:
Close the gaps: After allowing a season-high 207 yards rushing to the Bengals this past Monday night, including an 85-yard touchdown run by Jeremy Hill, the Raiders figure to pound away a bit in the run game just to see where things stand with the Broncos. Before Monday, the Broncos had not surrendered a run play longer than 27 yards this season. The Raiders have leaned on Latavius Murray more of late -- the Raiders have had two games this season when a back has had more than 18 carries and Murray has them both over the last three games. The Raiders have struggled mightily to run the ball at times this season -- they've averaged just 2.4 yards per carry on runs over the right guard, 3.3 yards per carry over the left guard -- but Murray has had a 90-yard touchdown run against the Chiefs and runs of at least 23 yards in four of his last five starts.
Rattle the rookie: Raiders quarterback Derek Carr learned at least some lessons from his brother David's body-bruising experiences as an NFL rookie quarterback. In David Carr's rookie season in 2002, he was sacked a league-record 76 times and some personnel executives in the league believed he never really recovered from that. Derek Carr has been sacked 21 times this season and has noticeably progressed since the last time the Broncos saw him on Nov. 9. Derek Carr was 30-of-47 passing for 192 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in the Broncos' win in Oakland. Since that games, however, Carr has thrown just two interceptions in six games combined -- both against the St. Louis Rams Nov. 30. Carr has beaten the Chiefs, 49ers and Bills since the loss to the Broncos. He's shown composure in the pocket, the ability to feel, then move away from pressure. Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said Friday he believes the Broncos have done good work in recent weeks against opposing quarterbacks, but Denver did not have a sack in their last two games -- a win in San Diego and a loss Monday in Cincinnati. Also, Von Miller has not had a sack in the last two games while DeMarcus Ware has not had a sack in the last three games.
Find themselves on offense: The Broncos have shown they can bust out the no-huddle, up-tempo look on offense as they did in a three-touchdown third quarter against the Bengals. And they've shown they can line up, dominate and leave bruises as they did in a 45-carry, 214-yard rushing day in the win at Kansas City to close out November. What they could really use on the doorstep to the playoffs is to show they can transition from one to the other in a game without losing their mojo. It's a lot to ask to be all things to all people, but it's a certainty as they move into the postseason opposing defenses are going to bank on the idea the Broncos aren't nearly as efficient going to Plan B in a game when Plan A doesn't work.
Protect the middle: After the Broncos shuffled their offensive front, they did a better job of closing down the middle of the formation and keeping defenses from getting a free rusher up into quarterback Peyton Manning's face. That is the most effective pressure against Manning as it limits his ability to stride into the throw, a must in his post-spinal fusion throwing motion, which is slightly more lower-body driven than he was earlier in his career. Manning needs that space to work in front of him and when the Broncos keep it clean, he is at his dominating best. When they don't, as they often didn't against the Bengals, bad things happen. Raiders rookie linebacker Khalil Mack has the look of a future Defensive Player of the Year and the Raiders did force the issue early in the Nov. 9 game, intercepting Manning twice and knocking down four passes before halftime.