OAKLAND, Calif. — The incongruity remains striking. Spending Christmas Eve in the Black Hole?
Santa must have misread my email. In all seriousness, games at the Coliseum -- I have lost track of the endless sponsors -- bring a rowdiness and edge unseen in other venues. There is energy, oddities and anger. The Broncos and Raiders don't like each other, which was likely the reason for this Monday night matchup. The games between the pair bring entertainment. What makes this different is the history hanging over the matchup.
This could be the Raiders last game in Oakland. They move to Las Vegas in 2020, but could play next season in London or parts unknown. That has led to an uneasiness about Monday's crowd. I know from John Facenda and NFL Films that "The Autum Wind" is a Raiders, pillaging just for fun. He'll knock you 'round and upside down and laugh when he's conquered and won. But does that apply for the winter as well? And possibly the press box? Asking for a friend.
Also, the Broncos are attempting to avoid back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1972, the longest active streak in the NFL. Coach Vance Joseph admits it is important. It is for him. Signs continue to point toward the Broncos parting ways with Joseph after the season. He has handled his situation with class -- it could not have been more awkward last Monday when asked about GM John Elway nearly hiring Mike Shanahan -- and dignity. In the end, however, his resume lacks victories. Joseph is 11-19, including 7-8 at home. While it can be argued the Broncos have been devastated by injuries, particularly over the last two games without Chris Harris Jr. and Emmauel Sanders, they suffered unspeakably bad losses to the Jets, 49ers, Texans and Browns that included schematic and clock management issues.
According to ESPN, Joseph is considered a top candidate to take over as the Bengals defensive coordinator for his mentor Marvin Lewis if, as expected, the Broncos make a move. The Broncos are Raiders are playing for draft position at this point. So that brings us to my Denver7 Things to Watch:
Phillip Lindsay is the only player through 15 weeks to rank in the top five in rushing yards (991), yards per carry (5.5), and rushing touchdowns (nine). He requires nine yards to become the first undrafted rookie to reach 1,000 since LaGarrette Blount in 2010. He requires 114 to break Dominic Rhodes record of 1,104 yards by an undrafted rookie. It is important to Lindsay because it is important to the team. "The offensive line deserves it," said Lindsay, a Pro Bowler, who has only 54 yards on his last 28 carries. "They have worked their butts off."
That is the name of Bradley Chubb's sack routine. It looks like he's doing a wheelie on a motorcycle. Can he ride it to history. Chubb requires three sacks in his final two games to break Jevon Kearse's all-time sack record of 14.5. "I am thinking about it, but I am not going to force it," Chubb told me. The challenge is real for Chubb. Both Derek Carr and next week's opponent Philip Rivers get rid of the ball quickly. Carr has been sacked a career-high 47 times.
Fire and Fury
Pro sports are a job. But players are human. And when the playoff carrot is removed it can have an impact. Will the Broncos continue to compete for Joseph? They have this season, save for the brutal loss at the Jets. Nose tackle Domata Peko, one of many players who might not be back next season, said "anyone can stick together when you are winning, it says a lot about your character when you stick together now."
No longer open and shut Case
The Broncos face a potential offseason with questions about head coach and quarterback. As it stands now, Case Keenum is likely to return, though he could be competing for the starting job next season or keeping the seat warm for a young prospect. Keenum has not delivered as expected, posting 15 touchdowns (27th overall) and 12 picks (tied for seventh most). Is this a byproduct of an ill-suited offense, injuries to tight ends Jake Butt, Jeff Heuerman and Sanders or simply Keenum regressing back to the mean? Can Keenum salvage his numbers with a strong finish? He has played better on the road than at home this season with seven touchdowns and four picks. He won't be under pressure. The Raiders have 12 sacks for the season, easily on pace for the worst season in franchise history.
The Broncos have issues. The defense isn't one. The Broncos rank sixth in points allowed per game at 21.4. They have yielded 17.7 over their last five games. When looking at why this team can compete next season, an opportunistic defense ranks near the top. Denver has also produced 24 takeaways, eighth best, after producing 17 last season. A strong sprint to the finish line remains important.
The Broncos boast 11 unrestricted free agents. Not all will be back. Are these the last appearances for notables Domata Peko, Shaq Barrett, Bradley, Roby, Zach Kerr, Jared Veldheer and Billy Turner? The Broncos also face questions about injured players Matt Paradis -- he's recovering from his broken fibula ahead of schedule and could receive an offer that prices him out of Denver -- and tight end Jeff Heuerman, who finally hit his stride before suffering a rib/lung injury against Pittsburgh.
Oakland fans have a well-earned reputation for rowdy behavior. What will the scene be like Monday night? Is safety a concern? The Broncos players won't miss the place, though Denver is 16-7 over its last 23 games in Oakland.
RENCK PREDICTION: Broncos 20, Raiders 19