ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With their second AFC West game in the first four weeks of the season -- against the Oakland Raiders -- staring the Denver Broncos in their collective face, coach Vance Joseph took on the idea of "must-win" games. His list is fairly easy to make.
"Every game we play is a must-win game," Joseph said Friday. "It’s only 16 opportunities. How we approach every game is with that mindset. They’re all must-wins. Obviously, being at home and it being a divisional game, you would think you would up your details and focus. Every game we play is a must-win game. Last week was. It doesn’t affect our mindset each week. It’s the same."
The AFC West figures to be the tightest of races all season, and the Kansas City Chiefs currently lead the way at 3-0, with both the Broncos and Raiders at 2-1. Last season in the game Raiders quarterback Derek Carr started against the Broncos, Oakland won easily 30-20, and the Broncos won the game Carr didn’t start because of injury 24-6 in the season finale.
With all that in mind, here are some things to watch in Sunday’s game:
Game-wreckers: The players who finished 1-2 in the league’s Defensive Player of the Year voting last season -- the Raiders’ Khalil Mack and the Broncos’ Von Miller -- definitely are the headliners in this one. And a marquee player who has a marquee game can tip the scales. Mack likely will spend plenty of his day against Broncos right tackle Menelik Watson, a former Raiders teammate. Watson is a power player who can match Mack’s ability to bull rush, but when Mack uses that power to Watson’s inside shoulder, there could be trouble. Already this season, some rushers have lured Watson into a shaky pass set and then powered to the inside shoulder to get to quarterback Trevor Siemian. As for Miller, he was hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty last Sunday that he said "killed the game," so he is poised for a big day.
Beast mode: Running back Marshawn Lynch’s presence in the Raiders’ offense changes the unit’s personality at least some. A team that always has coveted speed above almost all else on that side of the ball has now made a power back a key piece of the game plan. Lynch, who did not play last season before coming out of retirement for his hometown team, has shown flashes of his best tackle-breaking work, but overall, he has averaged 3.9 yards per carry to this point. The Broncos didn’t have their best tackling day, especially at key moments, in last weekend’s loss to Buffalo; another spotty outing would not bode well. The Raiders have been most effective running into the middle of the formation, at 6.7 yards per carry on runs over the center and just over 5 yards per carry over the left guard -- the defensive right.
Clean it up: Yes, it is just Week 4 of the season, but if the Broncos have any real interest in being the team they believe they are, they cannot turn the ball over at their current rate, especially Siemian. The Broncos have had two turnovers in each of their three games this season, and opponents have turned those turnovers into points five times, including four touchdowns. Last season, the Broncos were minus-2 in turnovers in a 30-20 loss to the Raiders in November and plus-2 in the win over the Raiders in the season finale.
Be patient: This past Sunday against the Raiders, the Redskins found plenty of room to work in the short and intermediate passing game, as quarterback Kirk Cousins finished 25-of-30 passing for 365 yards and three touchdowns. The Redskins isolated Raiders cornerback David Amerson in coverage at times and sent plenty of action his way. The Broncos are itching to make some plays down the field, but they have to keep their composure in how they go about their business Sunday. There is a line between a bold play and a game-changing mistake. The Broncos have to stay on the proper side of that line and make some plays underneath before looking for their shots up the sideline.