LAS VEGAS — Given the time, the place and the context, the storyline remains delicious.
The Broncos face a must-win to keep their dim playoff hopes flickering, leaving them to push all their chips to the center of the table with a quarterback they didn’t trust enough to start when the season began.
Drew Lock is back.
His return has left many in Broncos Country humming a remix of Mariah Carey’s holiday hit, “All I Want for Christmas is Drew.” Lock brings energy. He brings excitement – for both teams. Lock boasts 25 touchdowns, 20 interceptions and five lost fumbles (13 overall) in 21 games. Can he do his job and help the Broncos snap a three-game slide against the Raiders?
My Denver7 keys to a victory:
With Lock, you don’t want to take the wag out of the puppy’s tail. He needs to play with enthusiasm and exuberance. He can’t be a better version of Teddy Bridgewater, who boasts three turnovers, but only eight passing touchdowns in his last eight games. For Lock, ball security is job security. Anything more than one turnover and the Broncos will lose.
The Broncos rank ninth in rushing yards per game at 123.8. And the Raiders’ rush defense ranks 26th (125.3). The formula is simple: pound the rock with Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon to set up play action. Lock has had a plethora of issues in his career, but he remains nails in play action. A crossing route to Noah Fant or Albert Okwuegbunam could be the difference in a low-scoring game. Lock looks to Albert O when trouble festers.
Wide open range
For the most part, Bridgewater has kept the Broncos in games with his conservative play. It has come at a cost with the receivers entering into witness protection. Courtland Sutton has 12 catches for 131 yards over the last seven games. Jerry Jeudy has zero scores this season in eight games. Tim Patrick has the receivers’ only two touchdowns over the last seven weeks. Two or three times Sunday, Lock must use his arm strength and give this trio a chance to make a play down the field on a back-shoulder or 50-50 ball. Even an interference call would be a welcomed chunk.
Lock needs to throw around 25-30 times. No more. But protection will be an issue. Part of the reason the Broncos run more is that their pass protection is leaky. Look for the Raiders to try to create pressure up the middle with stunts and twists to confuse first-time starting center Austin Schlottmann. He last started at center during his senior year at Texas Christian in 2017.
Park the Carr
Derek Carr remains one of the Raiders’ most polarizing figures with the team’s fan base. He has lived through the coaching changes, the turmoil and excelled. But, is he playing for his future in Las Vegas? The Broncos must force Carr to make plays to secondary receivers with Darren Waller (knee) likely out and Henry Ruggs III no longer on the team.
Play with intensity
Fangio has suffered several awful defeats as he finds himself coaching for his job over the final three weeks. It’s hard to see him returning if he posts three straight losing records as a first-time head coach. His record against the Raiders is damning (1-4) and another defeat would be an indictment after the Broncos trailed 31-10 entering the fourth quarter in this season’s previous meeting. Simply put, this game requires pride and recognition of the rivalry. Another listless effort vs. the Raiders will fall squarely on Fangio's doorstep.
Make it matter
Under Fangio, the Broncos are 5-10 in the AFC West, including 1-9 vs. the Chiefs and Raiders. For this coaching staff and a chunk of players to create an argument to return, they must show progress in the division. That starts Sunday. I just don’t believe they can pull it off on the road, though it would be a terrific story if they did.
Troy’s Prediction: Raiders 20, Broncos 19