Broncos vs Raiders

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It’s entirely possible this is the last game the Raiders ever play in the Oakland Coliseum, for example. If that’s the case, it’s fitting that their time in the Bay will end with a game against an old rival, the Denver Broncos. Neither team is going anywhere special this season and the only effect this game will have on the season as a whole is on the draft order at the end of the year, but that doesn’t mean things aren’t on the line.

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The Broncos have finished below .500 in back-to-back seasons just once since the 1970s, for example, and they need to win each of their final two games to avoid that fate this year. The Raiders still claim they aren’t tanking, but a loss to the Broncos would put them back in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft, and that’s never a bad thing with one week to go in the year.

Which of these teams can pull off a victory on Monday? Let’s break things down.

Very quietly, Derek Carr has been a bit better since the Raiders took their bye back in Week 7 than he was earlier in the season. Interestingly, however, pretty much the entire difference in Carr’s passer rating (about 13 points) can be explained by a lack of turnovers. Both his completion percentage and his yards per attempt are actually down since the bye, though his touchdown rate is up a bit as well.

Carr has also had the benefit of working against several subpar pass defenses since the bye, with the Raiders having played the 49ers, Chiefs, Bengals, and Steelers over the past eight weeks. And against the tougher pass defenses of the Chargers, Cardinals, and Ravens, Carr was not nearly as good. And the Broncos, even without Chris Harris, are not a subpar pass defense.

Denver ranks third in the NFL in pass defense DVOA. The Broncos’ one area of relative weakness against the pass is on deep passes, where they rank 23rd in DVOA. But Carr almost never throws deep, as only 9.7 percent of his passes have traveled 15 or more yards in the air, per Pro Football Focus, which ranks 32nd out of 34 qualified quarterbacks.

Even if he did like to throw deep, he probably wouldn’t be able to do so against the Broncos, because they have one of the NFL’s best pass rushes and the Raiders have one of its leakiest offensive lines. They try to get the ball out as quickly as possible in order to counteract that, so Carr’s pressure rate is not sky-high, but he has been sacked on 28 percent of the drop backs where the opponent pressured him, per PFF, and that is the fourth-highest rate in the league. With Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, who both rank inside the top 20 in the NFL in total pressures, bearing down on him, it’s unlikely Carr will have enough time to target deep receivers anyway.

Instead, we’re likely to see a whole lot of what we’ve seen all year: check-downs to Jalen Richard, screen passes designed to get the ball out before the rush even has a chance to get going, and quick-strike throws over the middle to Jared Cook. The Raiders would likely prefer to run the ball as often as they can, but that’s tough sledding against the Broncos, who have the league’s 11th-ranked run defense unit. There are no easy gains available. They’ll have to take care of the ball (which Carr has done better of lately) and hope they can break some tackles in the open field, perhaps using Denver’s speed and aggressiveness against them.

Listen to Will Brinson, John Breech, Ryan Wilson and Sean Wagner-McGough break down everything that happened in Week 16 on the Pick Six Podcast:

When the Broncos have the ball

The engine of the Denver offense is rookie running back Phillip Lindsay. An undrafted free agent out of Colorado, the 5-8, 190-pound Lindsay beat out third-round pick Royce Freeman as well as second-year man Devontae Booker for the lead-back role, and has emerged as Denver’s best all-around offense player.

While Lindsay does not necessarily look the part (his closest athletic comparable who actually made an impact at the NFL level is probably former Texans running back Steve Slaton), his fantastic vision and instincts make him a natural fit for both Denver’s offense and the modern NFL. He’s done so much with his portion of the backfield work that he recently became the first undrafted free agent rookie ever to be named to the Pro Bowl. He currently ranks eighth in the NFL in rushing, but he’s also second among qualified backs in yards per carry and seventh in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, in a virtual tie with Alvin Kamara.

Lindsay has been on the field for 47 percent of the Broncos’ snaps this season, though that number has been trending upward all season. He is the team’s most consistent player and has proven to be a better runner both up the middle and to the edge of the formation than either Freeman or Booker, so that makes a good deal of sense. He proved tough for the Raiders to stop earlier this season, gaining 107 yards on 14 carries during the Broncos’ Week 2 victory. The Oakland run defense has not necessarily gotten much better since then (they rank 27th in rush defense DVOA), so Lindsay should be able to find some lanes if and when the Broncos dedicate themselves to running the ball.

But Denver’s pass game cannot be trusted at this point. After trading Demaryius Thomasand seeing Emmanuel Sanders go down with a torn Achilles, the Broncos are left with Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, and Tim Patrick as their primary wide receivers. That trio has combined to catch just 70 of 128 passes for 991 yards and five scores this season. With tight ends Jake Butt and Jeff Heuerman also out, Matt LaCosse is basically the only pass-catcher available at that spot. Let’s just say that quartet is not exactly one that strikes feat into the heart of defenses.

The Case Keenum signing has not really worked out as planned for the Broncos, even if he had played better for a few weeks right up until he threw out a stinker against the Brownsa week ago. Keenum has completed just 62 percent of his passes while averaging 6.8 yards per attempt, and has thrown just 15 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. He hasn’t single-handedly lost many games for the Broncos, but he hasn’t really won them any games, either. He’s essentially just been a slightly below-average quarterback, across the board. And that’s not what the Broncos paid $18 million per year to get. (In fairness, expecting Keenum to do what he did last year in Minnesota is on the Broncos. He had a longer track record of subpar play.)

Oakland’s pass defense has largely been dreadful this year, but the current version of Denver’s passing game seems like the kind of unit that should be tested on an every-snap basis, which will allow the Raiders to devote more resources to stopping the Lindsay-led running game. If they can slow him just a bit, it could be a long night for Keenum and company.

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