With the hangover of another loss at New England still in the backs of their minds, the Broncos could have been excused if they'd gone to Oakland hoping for a simple victory.
What they found is what a lot of teams have found this season. Oakland is a much better team than they usually show on the field. That doesn’t minimize the Raiders’ singular ability to shoot themselves in the foot.
Denver brought its own set of problems into what may be their final visit to the Coliseum. Problem 1 on the list has been the erratic play of their offensive line. Despite attempts to change it, the line has let down the running game this year more weeks than not. Few, if any, running backs consistently break tackles in their own backfield. The laws of inertia are against them.
This week, a shoulder injury left Paul Cornick on the sidelines. Louis Vasquez moved out to right tackle, with Manny Ramirez sliding over to right guard. Will Montgomery was inserted at center. That essentially meant that every player on the line in Oakland was starting at a position that he hadn’t played the year before (Ryan Clady played only two games in 2013). That’s a prescription for communication problems. The line has to be praised for how they handled the issue as the game went on.
When Orlando Franklin had first heard that he’d be moved to left guard, he posted an angry tweet on the subject. He later took it down, and has been a ‘team guy’ since then. Vasquez was ready as soon as he was told. His comment was, "Have to do what's best for the team. Not even thinking about it." Vasquez is an All-Pro, All-Team player. That doesn’t minimize the number of problems the line will have to deal with in such a situation.
Montgomery made a few complete whiffs on attacking defenders. That’s to be expected in his season debut. As the game progressed, he improved noticeably. To PFF, he had the only clearly positive cumulative numbers on the line.
Ramirez played a bit better at guard than he has at center. Antonio Smith had his number, though. That’s a fact that’s unlikely to be lost on the coaches.
Clady is still struggling with run blocking. Franklin was flagged for illegal procedure twice and had a poor game. Two penalties and four hurries against Oakland doesn’t cut it.
Having Montgomery snapping the ball could have thrown him off, though. You get used to a certain approach and have to adapt when it changes. Ben Garland got some playing time late (five snaps) in the game. It was good to see him on the field. I wonder if we’ll see him more.
Despite their issues, the team shook off their collective hangover and went on the offensive. Ronnie Hillman was struggling with an injured foot, but C.J. Anderson got his own moment in the sun and ran the ball 13 times for 90 yards. He added four receptions for another 73 yards, including a screen pass reception for 51 and a touchdown. Entering the game, Anderson had a total of 154 yards for his NFL career. Congratulations to him.
Demaryius Thomas had his sixth 100-yard game in a row, leaving him two games shy of Calvin Johnson's NFL record.
Peyton Manning had a horrific opening to the game, a trial that included two interceptions. He bounced back from that start with an incredible performance. Manning completed 31-of-44 passes (70.5%) for 340 yards and five touchdowns in three quarters.
He had the two noted interceptions, but a 111.9 QB rating. It was Peyton's ninth five-touchdown game of his career, breaking Drew Brees’s previous NFL record of eight. He has a scoring pass in 48 consecutive games dating to 2010. That passed Johnny Unitas (47; 1956-60) for the third-longest streak in history. He also extended his active record streak of games with multiple passing touchdowns to 15.
While listing records and performances, we should hand a passer’s version of the Darwin Awards to Derek Carr for the perfect Raiders play of the game. Oakland received the kickoff to start the third quarter. Under pressure, Carr flipped a pass illegally to Khalif Barnes, an offensive lineman. Barnes ran with the pass anyway. He fumbled and Denver recovered (declining the ‘illegal touching’ penalty). Two plays later, Manning passed to Emmanuel Sanders for a touchdown. It was Sanders' sixth of the season, matching his highest yearly total to date. That’s another mark that’s likely to fall.
Brandon Marshall came off a five-tackle performance at Foxboro, where he was asked to cover Rob Gronkowski at times. He changed gears by handing out 13 tackles in Oakland, 11 of them solo. He added a TFL and a pass defensed. This is Marshall’s second performance within three games of double-digit tackling. He had 10 tackles against San Diego. Eventually, putting him together with Danny Trevathan and Von Miller will create one heck of a starting LB corps.
The defensive line didn’t get a sack on Carr, but harassed him for much of the game. Terrance Knighton put a midsection hit on Carr as he released a pass that he’ll be digesting for a week. The line's run-stopping was excellent. Derek Wolfe still leads the league in run-stops.
2014 first-rounder Bradley Roby contributed an interception, four solo tackles, and two passes defensed. The secondary in general was impressive. T.J. Ward had seven tackles (four solo), a QB hit and a PD. Chris Harris had four solo tackles with a PD. He hasn’t had a game in negative numbers all year. Quinton Carter (welcome back, Q) had three solo tackles in 44 snaps. That list goes on for a while - it’s good to see the secondary stepping up.
Beyond anything, the Oakland game showed how good Denver really is when they play in sync. They played erratically for the first quarter and most of the second, trailing 10-6. Then they took over the game, destroyed the home team, and put in their backup QB in time for the fourth quarter.
In 1.25 quarters Denver scored 35 points. That’s more than many teams do in two weeks. Falling down for a quarter plus is a not good thing. But watching the second and third quarters gave me the sense that Denver’s biggest problem is themselves. I wonder if there’s a subconscious belief that they can always pull one out.
If winning 13 regular season games each year is their biggest problem, that’s hardly the stuff of nightmares. However, it can be the stuff of missed opportunities. They’re trying to keep all the parts working and in tune, as if dealing with a 12-cylinder engine. They have a common problem among teams that good. Keeping your focus laser-sharp is very difficult. You’ll lose that focus at times and get hammered, as they did in Foxboro.
The Super Bowl is generally won by the team that gets hottest at that late point in the year. Perhaps they’ve had injury luck, or gotten their players back at the right time. The list of ways that fortune can smile on one are infinite. That goes double for the ways things go wrong. Denver went through both in a single half. They continued to lambaste the Raiders in the third quarter before starting to pack up for the trip home.
C.J. Anderson introduced himself to the active roster in a big way. Denver has needed a better running game, and he gave a great performance. The offensive line improved, which helped. Ronnie Hillman has shown that when healthy, he can be a solid contributor. Juwan Thompson is an all-around value player. I look forward to Montee Ball’s return. Denver’s finally developing a running game that’s not dependent on any one player.
St. Louis is now 3-6, the bottom-feeder of the NFC West. Arizona destroyed them, but got the bad news that Carson Palmer is out with a torn ligament in his knee, ending his season. The Rams are an easier opponent than most Denver saw in the first half of the season, but like Oakland, they can bite the unwary. If Denver can build on what they showed in Oakland, they’ll be 8-2 when the game ends.