ENGLEWOOD — Two weeks ago, the Broncos were undefeated, glossy enthusiasm replacing the shades of gray from the past five seasons. This team represented hope. They were spouting directions for the Road to Redemption, and darn't if Siri wasn't listening.
It would be better at this point for Broncos Country to rid itself of that warm glow, to focus on their knotted stomachs.
The calendar insists it is October. But this game, this week against this opponent feels heavy. It remains difficult finding a path to the playoffs and a winning record if the Broncos cannot beat the Raiders at home.
I know we cannot unsee what has unfolded in front of our eyes the past two weeks. The Broncos own a two-game losing streak largely because of forgettable first halves, outscored 34-13.
This Sunday, while honoring coach Mike Shanahan's entry into the Ring of Fame and Steve Atwater getting his Hall of Fame ring of excellence, offers a chance to rebound. The Raiders arrive in chaos following coach Jon Gruden's resignation for misogynistic, racist and homophobic emails as part of the investigation into the toxic culture of the Washington Football Team.
He ran the Raiders with complete control, leading to wild cultural inconsistencies, but a decent offense. He's gone as the czar, the coach and the coordinator. If the Broncos cannot beat Las Vegas, led by 61-year-old special teams ace Rich Bisaccia, then it is fair to wonder who they can eclipse in the AFC West at home.
This is a get right game. Or get lost in the standings, and accelerate talk of coaching and coordinators on the hot seat. My Denver7 keys to a Broncos win.
Start it up
The Broncos cannot continue to assume a reactionary position. The strategy of feeling the opponent out has the Broncos on the ropes. The offense has not scored a touchdown on an opening drive under offensive boss Pat Shurmur in 24 games. They have one touchdown in the first quarter this season. Time to be more creative, try some uptempo, some motion, a little misdirection. Get the Raiders guessing with calculated tweaks that create a lead. Denver is not good enough to sit around and just ask players to win one-on-one matchups consistently. Create advantages through the scheme.
Run it back
The Broncos committed to the run last week at Pittsburgh, but became so predictable it fizzled. On the first three drives, the Broncos ran on the first two plays. The Raiders rank 25th against the run. The Broncos can gash them, but sequencing matters. Pass on first down to set up the run from emerging rookie Javonte Williams and veteran Melvin Gordon.
Stop the run
This was the plan at Pittsburgh and the Broncos dissolved before our eyes. Maybe they were getting held too much (then it's on the coaches and players to lean on the refs to make it stop or get some calls). Whatever the case, the Broncos were handled at the line of scrimmage. A bounceback is needed for Dre'Mont Jones and Mike Purcell. The Raiders average 78.6 yards on the ground. They haven't run the ball well all season. Denver cannot let that change Sunday against a retooled Raiders offensive line that is struggling and hurt, leading right tackle Alex Leatherwood to move to right guard.
Third and wrong
The Broncos' third down issues are alarming. They are 5-for-26 in conversions offensively the last two weeks, while allowing opponents to convert on 14 of 29. That is awful. The offense consistently faces third-and-8s. That's no way to live. Improving and becoming less predictable on first and second down remains critical. Defensively, the communication issues with the secondary must be cleaned up. And linebackers Justin Strnad and Alexander Johnson must work better together.
Park the Carr
Derek Carr swept the Broncos last year. He has a knack of avoiding sacks, getting rid of the ball quickly. However, he is operating without Gruden, which should give him more power, but possible leaving him more exposed. The Raiders have permitted 15 sacks. The Broncos need to post two in big spots.
Avoid the big play
The Broncos defense cannot be considered special right now. Why? They are not producing enough takeaways (six in five games) and yielding too many big plays (they have been gashed for seven passing plays of 30 yards, including multiple at Kyle Fuller's expense). Ronald Darby will return and improve the back end. But the challenge is real containing Henry Ruggs III's speed and Darren Waller's athleticism (he should be bracketed in man and zone coverage).
Play with Passion
This is Raiders week. That used to mean something around here. It certainly did to coach Shanahan, who will be honored at halftime. He believed correctly that late Raiders owner Al Davis owed him money. He began his Broncos career 11-1 vs. the Raiders. The Broncos should take their cue from the coach, and take this game personally.
Troy's prediction: Broncos 24, Raiders 20