ENGLEWOOD — The Rivalry received an injection of venom this offseason.
The Broncos-Raiders game has not moved the needle in recent years — the matchup lopsided, with the Silver & Black winning six of the past seven games and six straight at home. But Las Vegas owner Mark Davis increased the animosity by hiring coach Josh McDaniels this offseason.
McDaniels is known for his reign of error in Denver. In 2009, he led the first team to start a season 6-0 and miss the playoffs. The Gucci knockoff version of Bill Belichick failed to finish his second season, fired with a 3-9 record in 2010 as fans disappeared from the games.
McDaniels is back in the AFC West, continuing where he left off. The Raiders are the the NFL's only winless team, falling in close contests to the Chargers, Cardinals and Titans. The teams that beat Las Vegas have yet to beat anyone else. This feels like a must-win for the Raiders. And certainly there is a sense in the Broncos' locker room that the rivalry has fuel again.
"Coming in here, everybody hated the Raiders, so you just hop on that bandwagon," starting free safety Caden Sterns said. "You can see from last year, we really don't like them and they don't like us."
Added nose tackle Mike Purcell, who grew up in Highlands Ranch as a Broncos fan, "Absolutely, I hate them, too. It's part of the game. They are one of those teams. Our fans are the best in the league, and we are going to prove we are the the best defense in the league."
The Broncos cannot be overconfident, saddled with one of the league's worst offenses. That is why they are a 2.5-point underdog in this game. However, there is a clear path to victory. My Denver7 keys:
Move. Get Out The Way
Russell Wilson showed against the 49ers that he can still make plays with his legs. It's time to move the pocket, and showcase his mobility. He doesn't need to stand like a statue like a 40-year-old Drew Brees. His feet can provide dance steps to a win. Wilson has tried to play a certain way for three weeks. It's time to blend more of the old Wilson with his new team.
Sending and Receiving
Wilson has leaned heavily on Courtland Sutton as his favorite target on deep throws and on third down. He trusts him. As he should. But another receiver needs to develop into a threat. Consistency is required from Jerry Jeudy, who has been relatively quiet since his 67-yard touchdown against the Seahawks, in part because of an injury. I expect the Raiders to double Sutton, leaving opportunities for Jeudy, K.J. Hamler and tight end Eric Saubert.
Denver followed the blueprint vs. the 49ers: stop the run, make them one dimensional and send the pass rushers like heat-seeking missiles. The same applies with Las Vegas. Josh Jacobs is a load. He averages 4.6 yards per carry this season and has seven touchdowns in five career games vs. the Broncos. Purcell, Dre'Mont Jones and D.J. Jones, who has cleared the concussion protocol, must win at the point of attack.
Dude Where's My Carr?
Derek Carr does not look like himself in McDaniels' offense, appearing robotic and stuck on script. He targeted star receiver Davante Adams 17 times in the opener, then only 17 times the next two weeks. No receiver is better in the red zone, so I would expect the Raiders will remember that this Sunday. Pat Surtain II figures to match up with Adams frequently and cover him in obvious passing situations. The Broncos prepared for Hunter Renfrow (concussion) to play, but he was ruled out on Friday. There are a lot of questions. Will Carr look to find tight end Darren Waller in matchups vs. Josey Jewell? Will McDaniels resort to trick plays? Can the Broncos force an interception with sticky coverage and relentless pressure? Carr has long protected the ball against Denver, but has four picks this season.
Don't forget the run game
Everyone wants to see Wilson revert to his Pro Bowl form. But Wilson throwing 40 times in a road game remains ill-advised. Keep the number between 25-to-35, and that means the ground game is churning. The Broncos rank 12th at 117.7 yards per game. Javonte Williams is due for a huge chunk play, and Melvin Gordon knows he has to protect the ball if he is to continue to be an option near the goal line.
Division games are typically close because of familiarity. The easiest way to lose on the road is to eschew touchdowns for field goals. Opponents have scored touchdowns on 80 percent of their red zone trips vs. the Raiders. It's past time for Denver to figure it out inside the 20-yard line. Staying balanced with the run and pass is critical, and Wilson scrambling with purpose or using the bootleg could be the secret sauce.
Take it away Now
The Broncos defense does everything well right now. They are getting sacks (nine) and takeaways (four). While the offense needs to carry its water, there's no shame in the defense setting up a few short fields with turnovers. The Broncos are an underdog, but I believe, perhaps naively, that they learned from the Seattle experience and will find a way to play their most complete game of the season.
RENCK PREDICTION: Broncos 25, Raiders 22