Buoyed by another three-touchdown performance from C.J. Anderson, the Broncos (12-4) cruised to a 47-14 (Game Book) win over the visiting Raiders (3-13) on Sunday.
The victory clinches a first-round bye for the Broncos; on Sunday, January 11, at 4:40pm, they'll host the highest seeded remaining team among Cincy, Pittsburgh, and Indy in the divisional round. Tickets for the game will go on sale at 3pm Broncos Time on Monday.
As with Anderson's other three-score game, three weeks earlier against Buffalo, Peyton Manning was held without a touchdown pass.
After Von Miller's 14th sack of the year forced an opening three-and-out, Denver's offense took over near midfield, but was only able to muster a long field goal. Once in scoring range, Justin Tuck blew up Louis Vasquez for a three-yard sack of Peyton Manning, who threw a helicoptering incompletion two downs later. Connor Barth was perfect from 49 for a 3-0 Broncos lead.
Oakland's second possession ended similarly to its first, with Aqib Talib dropping Derek Carr for an eight-yard loss. The Broncos again started near midfield, and this time took full advantage, scoring just four plays later. Manning completed passes of 13 and 27 yards to Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas (video), respectively, and C.J. Anderson weaved his way for an 11-yard touchdown run (video).
While the Broncos forced a third straight three-and-out, their 10-0 lead didn't last very long. Facing a 2nd-and-2 from their own 23, Denver called a WR screen to Emmanuel Sanders. But Tuck was left completely untouched and deflected the lateral, and corner Keith McGill astutely picked up the ball and ran it in for an 18-yard fumble return score.
But Manning & Co. bounced right back, converting three third downs on a 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive that restored the Broncos' 10-point lead at 17-7. Receptions of 31 yards by Sanders and 23 yards by Thomas moved the sticks on consecutive third downs, and Anderson walked in for a one-yard score, his second touchdown of the game (video).
The teams exchanged a quintet of punts from there, and Denver moved into scoring range with a two-minute drive before halftime. Manning's pass to Thomas at the goal line on a 3rd-and-8 from the 18 fell incomplete, but Ras-I Dowling's obvious pass interference went uncalled, and Barth's 36-yarder gave the Broncos a 20-7 lead at the break.
For the second straight week, Omar Bolden took the second-half kickoff back for a long return, this one a 76-yarder to the Oakland 30. Anderson took care of the rest with runs of five and 25 yards (video), making him the fourth Broncos running back to rush for three touchdowns in a game at least twice (he first did so three weeks earlier against Buffalo). Terrell Davis (four times), Mike Anderson, and Clinton Portis (twice each) are the other Broncos to have accomplished the feat.
That gave Denver a 27-7 lead, but Oakland bounced back with its first drive of any kind, a 10-play 80-yarder to draw within 27-14. Most of the yardage came on throws by Carr, including a 46-yard catch-and-run by Latavius Murray (video). Jamize Olawale capped the possession with his second one-yard scoring reception in as many weeks (video).
Denver's next drive was keyed by a 36-yard PI call against D.J. Hayden; Thomas was unable to haul in Manning's third-down pass into the end zone, and Barth knocked through a 35-yarder for a 30-14 lead.
Oakland again moved into Denver territory with a 10-play drive, but with time running down on the third quarter, Tony Sparano made the baffling call to punt on 4th-and-4 from the plus-39.
A subsequent 15-play drive brought the Broncos down near the Oakland goal line, but four incompletions inside the 11 led to a 21-yard field goal by Barth for a 33-14 lead. The missed connections left Manning without a touchdown for the second time in four games, and Thomas (eight catches, 115 yards) finished two catches shy of Rod Smith's single-season franchise record. However, Demaryius did eclipse Smith's mark for most receiving yardage in a campaign, resetting the bar at 1,619 (video).
It wasn't for a lack of effort that Thomas fell short of the receptions mark, as Manning targeted him 17 times on the day. The pair remained in the game even with the late 19-point lead, in an obvious prioritization of team records over player health.
Manning and Thomas thankfully avoided injury, but that decision by the Broncos was underscored moments later, when David Bruton was concussed during a punt return on a dirty blindside hit from Denico Autry. Bruton lay motionless for several minutes, before eventually being immobilized, carted off, and taken from SAF@MH via ambulance.
The ensuing Raiders possession featured more big hits, as Kayvon Webster knocked receiver James Jones out of the game with a clean hit, and Lerentee McCray blasted Carr on a strip sack. Tony Carter scooped up the loose ball for an easy 20-yard score (video), his third career return touchdown (his other two came in 2012).
Following Oakland's seventh three-and-out of the afternoon, Brock Osweiler wisely took over for Manning. Aside from four largely fruitless carries by Jeremy Stewart, Osweiler came away from the drive with a new career long completion - 38 yards to Virgil Green - and the first touchdown pass of his career, a one-yarder to Green. It was also Virgil's first NFL touchdown, making the score 47-14 (video).
Another career first came moments later, as recently promoted safety Josh Bush ended the game with his first career interception, of Carr.
Along with Bruton, Orlando Franklin departed with a concussion and did not return; he was replaced by Ben Garland. Demaryius Thomas was hampered by an injury to his right middle finger, but X-rays were thankfully negative.
Denver went undefeated at home for the first time since 2005.
With 482 points, these Broncos scored the fourth most points in franchise history, edging the 2012 club by one. And while this year's defense is clearly better than last year's, the Broncos only permitted 45 fewer points than they did in 2013.
Peyton Manning has now led his team to 12 or more wins 11 times in his 16 seasons.
Oakland will pick #4 in the 2015 Draft.
Denver: Mike Klis, Andrew Mason (Three Keys), Jeff Legwold (Rapid Reaction), Arnie Stapleton, Troy Renck (Highs/Lows), David Ramsey, Cecil Lammey
Klis on Thomas's record-breaking day; Legwold discusses Virgil Green's first career NFL touchdown
Oakland: Jerry McDonald, Bill Williamson, Vic Tafur
Highlights from NFLN and BTV; John Fox's locker room speech
John Fox, Peyton Manning, Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Virgil Green, and others speak after the game