Broncos-Raiders Thursday Night Preview

CAN PEYTON MANNING LEAD THE DENVER BRONCOS TO THE AFC CHAMPIONSHIP?

Sports bettors and fans of the NFL are going to get a great read on the top three teams in the AFC over the next few days. The first TV game of the week features the 9-3 Denver Broncos in a divisional rivalry game against Oakland. The last TV game of the week is a Monday Night thriller matching the Houston Texans and the New England Patriots.

Houston, New England, and Denver are the top three teams in current futures prices in Las Vegas. Baltimore fell off the pace a bit last week with a home loss to shorthanded Pittsburgh. There's always a chance that a Wildcard team could get hot in January (particularly Pittsburgh if they get healthy). But...at the moment...the AFC title picture is a "big three" featuring teams you'll be watching on Thursday and Monday Nights.

Here's how the standings look for the four teams currently projected to win the AFC divisions, using conference records as a tie-breaker.

AFC LEADERS
Houston 11-1 (9-0 in the AFC)
New England 9-3 (8-1 in the AFC)
Baltimore 9-3 (8-2 in the AFC)
Denver 9-3 (6-2 in the AFC)

Now, if any two teams finish in a tie, then head-to-head meetings would be the tie-breaker rather than conference record. So far in that realm:

Houston beat Baltimore and Denver
Baltimore beat New England
New England beat Denver
Houston will play New England Monday
Denver will play Baltimore Sunday December 16

How about that?! We have a full round robin of the top teams playing each other this year! Houston is already 2-0 within that round robin, New England and Baltimore are both 1-1, and Denver is 0-2

It's very likely Houston will get one of the two first round byes given those standings and their victories over both Baltimore and Denver. Though, they are underdogs at New England Monday, and still have to face Indianapolis twice in the final three weeks. It's not quite a lock yet!

Denver, the focus of today's preview, will be trying to rise up to that #2 seed so they can get a week of rest before hosting an opponent at altitude. They need to keep winning, and they need somebody to knock off New England for that to happen. If you're trying to deduce how likely it would be for Peyton Manning to lead Denver to the Super Bowl, it's obviously easier to go:

  • Bye, home win, try to get lucky in Houston

Instead of:

  • Win at home vs. a Wildcard (possibly Pittsburgh again), win on the road at Houston or New England, then win on the road AGAIN vs. the other team in the AFC Championship.

Given the framework of this year's AFC, there's a HUGE difference between getting a #2 seed and settling for a #3 seed. The single biggest factor regarding the Broncos arguably doesn't involve the experience and savvy of Manning. It involves their slot in the brackets. Denver needs to make sure they stay focused Thursday Night against an Oakland Raiders team with nothing to lose. Their position in the tie-breakers is already onerous. An outright LOSS...in the AFC...would come close to knocking them off the radar for a bye.

DENVER BRONCOS at OAKLAND RAIDERS (8:20 p.m. ET on NFL Network)
Las Vegas Spread: Denver by 10, total of 48

The market has basically dropped Oakland down to "worst in the league" status in recent action. The Raiders have had trouble dealing with a brutal travel schedule. This is the first time in several weeks where they got to stay at home two games in a row. Denver is near the top of oddsmaker and sharp Power Ratings...just behind Houston, New England, and San Francisco. The line you see above suggests Denver would be -13 on a neutral field, and -16 at home. That also gives you the approximate top-to-bottom range in the NFL. The best would be about -17 at home, about -10 on the road against the worst at the moment.

WON-LOST RECORDS (schedule strength according to USA Today)
Denver: 9-3 (16th ranked schedule)
Oakland: 3-9 (19th ranked schedule)

Both teams "are what they are" in the won-lost records given those strengths of schedule. Denver is right at league average. Oakland a shade below. It's a fair point to mention that Oakland's travel demands aren't factored into USA Today's computer rankings. Our own proprietary rankings (which we don't publish) would have the Raiders as slightly better than 3-9 vs. a league average schedule if not for all the jet lag.

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL
Denver: -3
Oakland: -6

Denver is WAY behind Houston and New England in this stat (which you'll see on Monday). This is another strike against them in terms of reaching the Super Bowl. The offense and the special teams are too mistake-prone at the moment to play truly great football. That's a potential issue tonight if the Broncos come in flat. Remember all the goofs in the road win at San Diego?

OFFENSIVE STATS
Denver: 386.9 yards-per-game on 5.9 yards-per-play
Oakland: 361.8 yards-per-game on 5.5 yards-per-play

Manning is getting the job done here. But, this isn't actually where the Broncos have their biggest edge on the Raiders. Oakland can move the ball. They just can't always be trusted to turn those yards into points. Manning is the picture of efficiency, while Carson Palmer typically isn't. The edge for Denver is bigger than those raw numbers would suggest as a result...but not nearly s big as you're about to see on defense.

DEFENSIVE STATS
Denver: 308.2 yards-per-game on 4.6 yards-per-play
Oakland: 387.0 yards-per-game on 6.1 yards-per-play

The yardage is big enough, but the yards-per-play differential is a true monster. Denver has been fantastic in that area, while Oakland generally sits back and lets opponents do what they want. Put Manning's 5.9 on offense up against a 6.1 on defense...and it's going to blow up into the mid 6's...which probably well over 400 total yards of offense. Last year Denver's defense was overlooked while Tim Tebow grabbed headlines. The same kind of thing is happening this year with Manning.

LAST WEEK'S BOXSCORES

DENVER 31, TAMPA BAY 23
Total Yardage: Tampa Bay 306, Denver 333
Rushing Yards: Tampa Bay 71, Denver 91
Passing Stats: Tampa Bay 18-39-1-235, Denver 27-38-1-242
Turnovers: Tampa Bay 1, Denver 1
Third Downs: Tampa Bay 25%, Denver 36%
Vegas Line: Denver by 7.5, total of 51

Denver scored a defensive touchdown to help turn close stats into a more comfortable win. Tampa Bay needed a garbage time TD to get close to the Vegas number. Solid defense from the Broncos, particularly in the area of third downs and forcing incomplete passes.

CLEVELAND 20, OAKLAND 17
Total Yardage: Cleveland 475, Oakland 429
Rushing Yards: Cleveland 122, Oakland 85
Passing Stats: Cleveland 25-36-2-353, Oakland 34-54-1-344
Turnovers: Cleveland 2, Oakland 1
Third Downs: Cleveland 27%, Oakland 56%
Vegas Line: Cleveland by 2.5, total of 38

If you're losing home games to Cleveland, then your season is in the dumpster already. Let's note though that the Raiders passed for well over 300 yards while moving the chains consistently. Were Denver to come in flat against a divisional rival...the Raiders do have what it takes to make the game interesting. It's very common for lame duck teams to get up for divisional rivals...which you saw Jacksonville do for Houston and Tennessee (but not Buffalo) to cite a recent example.

BEST EXPECTATION
Many of the intangibles do favor the big home dog here. Oakland is finally rested, and should be motivated to take a national TV rivalry game seriously. Denver has a big game next week vs. Baltimore, and hasn't been consistently hitting on all cylinders in recent weeks anyway. The key to picking the game is determining whether Denver's clear edges when they have the ball will be enough to put the game out of reach. The Broncos are clearly the much better team. Should they be favored by THIS much on THIS night?

JIM HURLEY has a strong opinion about that. You can purchase his Thursday Night card right here at the website. If you have any questions, call the office at 1-800-323-4453. Be sure to check on bowl and playoff rates when you call, as well as combination packages with basketball.

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