SAN FRANCISCO -- The Oakland Raiders inadvertently performed a service for the Broncos this season. They became good again. The Raiders raced to their best start since 2001. They are 6-2, and they are back on prime time for the first time since 2013. This helps the Broncos. No, really. Stay with me.
When a team comes off a championship, doubt seldom acts as nitro methane to fuel a repeat. In the Broncos' case, they are viewed with suspicion. They are underdogs at Oakland, a place where they haven't lost since 2010. This can work in their favor. A national TV audience is prepared to move on from Denver as champs, and this stage offers a chance to make a resounding statement. What is that exactly? That a great defense trumps all.
Even without cornerback Aqib Talib, who is enjoying an all-pro season, the Broncos believe in their secondary against Oakland MVP candidate Derek Carr. Forget the autumn wind and the patched eyes, the Broncos need a win with their patchwork defense.
Let's talk Broncos' Take 5 Keys to victory:
1) Run from the crowd
Nothing creates a buzzkill for a frothing crowd like a long, sustained drive on the ground. The Broncos know they must improve their rushing game after it was "non-existent" -- coach Gary Kubiak's words -- against San Diego. The Raiders can be gashed. They allow 125 yards per game, fifth worst in the NFL. The last time the Broncos faced a team with such issues, they rolled for 190 yards against Houston. Rookie Devontae Booker received a pain injection in his left shoulder. He finished with a good week of practice. This sets up as his potential breakthrough performance. Without it, the Broncos can't win.
2) Start fast on defense
This is asking a lot. No team has allowed more first possession points than Denver (38). The Broncos have permitted five touchdowns and one field goal. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is expected to coach from the booth after breaking a rib last week when San Diego's Melvin Gordon ran him over. The Broncos have forced just one first possession punt this season. Denver's offense isn't good enough to play catch up on the road in this hostile environment.
3) Go deep young man
No one liked the long bomb as much as Raiders owner Al Davis. Watching former Colorado star Cliff Branch race under a rainbow brought gasps. The Broncos need to bring it back on at least two plays. Oakland practically owns the market on deep throws, having 30 passes of 20-plus yards. The Broncos have 18. Trevor Siemian is still learning how to take care of the ball and take chances. But a few 50-to-50 jumpballs to Emmanuel Sanders and Demayius Thomas are necessary. Siemian knows he must improve after a week when teammates showed confidence by voting him a midseason captain along with safety T.J. Ward and linebacker Dekoda Watson.
4) Keep the pressure on
Oakland is good. But the Raiders haven't proven anything yet. None of their six victories has come against a team with a winning record. Oakland is 1-2 at home, losing to Atlanta and Kansas City. The Raiders want to be taken seriously. This game is a barometer. If the Broncos can stay close, keep pressure on Carr, they have proven they can win ugly. The Raiders are two-point favorite, but haven't covered the spread at home in seven straight games.
5) Make Carr beat them
Yes, this sounds crazy given that Carr has the second-most attempts and only three picks. But when teams become one-dimensional against the Broncos, it favors Denver. It's a tall order. The Raiders have a strong complement of running backs. And the Broncos' D is terrific, save for the rush defense (117.4 yards per game, 10th worst). Hey, even Cindy Crawford has a mole.
The Broncos own the top-ranked pass defense. The players insist the No Fly Zone can can excel again without Talib. Win here with a depleted secondary, and it will speak volumes about the Broncos' depth and their ability to navigate the NFL's toughest remaining schedule.
RENCK PREDICTION: Broncos 22, Raiders 21.