One of the worst teams in the NFL is looking for a major upset in Week 14 as the Oakland Raiders host the Denver Broncos on Thursday Night Football.
The Broncos (9-3) are enjoying the most enthusiasm they've had in the Mile High City since John Elway was under center. Not only is Peyton Manning spearheading a fantastic offense, but Von Miller is making a Defensive Player of the Year case on the other side of the ball.
They have already clinched the AFC West, won seven straight and put any memory of their early-season struggles behind them. Manning has hit his stride, and that means trouble for the rest of the NFL—especially the Raiders on Thursday night.
The Raiders (3-9) haven't hit any sort of stride. Instead, they've hit a brick wall. Losers of five straight, Oakland has hit a perfect storm or poor play, bad bounces and injuries. Before the season, I took heat from the Raiders faithful for being hard on the offense. It turns out I was wrong only in forgetting to predict how disappointing the defense would be.
So, who wins on Thursday night?
Key Storyline No. 1: Just How Unbeatable Are the Broncos?
A lot of people saw this coming. Not just the Broncos' good play, but also the slow start. Manning wasn't 100 percent, but he's also Manning, meaning he's still better playing injured than most are on their best days.
Now, he looks like his arm strength is back, and he's on the same page (for the most part) of his receiver corps. On the other side of the ball, the defense is firing on all cylinders. This team isn't bulletproof, but they look pretty darn untouchable.
Thursday Night Football (especially on the road) offers a unique set of challenges. This season, teams have had trouble finding their footing and road teams have often fared worse than one would normally expect.
If the Broncos are a truly elite team, none of that should matter. Win or lose, we'll find out a lot about the Broncos based on how they come out on Thursday night. Yes it's the Raiders, but if the Broncos have the pedal to the metal from start to finish against a clearly inferior team, you can probably start booking your AFC Championship Game tickets now.
Key Storyline No. 2: Who's To Blame For Raiders' Horrid Play?
Already, the calls for Dennis Allen's head have been shouted from the Raider Nation. Sure the team is rebuilding, but it wasn't supposed to be this bad, was it?
Is this like the post-Millen Detroit Lions who will need years to wash off the stench of past personnel decisions, or is this just a coach out of his league? Is Carson Palmer living up to his end of his contract, or is he the one letting his receivers down? What's up with that defense anyway? Weren't they supposed to be good?
Most likely, it's a combination of all of the above and so much more.
The Raiders don't get a whole lot of national games, so Thursday Night Football will shine a bright light onto the problems in Oakland. As players, coaches and the front office look to put their best foot forward in front of a huge television audience, we'll all get to see who drops the ball.
Then, the morning after, the calls for accountability will begin.
Keys for the Denver Broncos
The biggest hurdle for the Broncos is going to be stopping the Raiders through the air. It's strength-on-strength as the Raiders' eighth-ranked passing offense takes on the Broncos' sixth-ranked passing defense, and the Raiders have enough team speed to win some one-on-one matchups on the outside.
So, as much as we've talked about Manning (and we can be positive they will on the NFL Network broadcast as well) Von Miller is probably the biggest key to this game. If he can get through the Raiders' poor protection and force Palmer into some of those trademark mistakes, the Broncos win running away with it.
Keys for the Oakland Raiders
So, if the Raiders have to pass to win, they'll need to make sure this isn't just a shootout with Manning. That, my friends, would be the stupidest situation any team could put itself in.
Palmer needs to take care of the ball. Marcel Reece is probably playing with a host of injuries. He's been carrying the load for weeks, and anyone who watches can see it weighing on him. If he can hold up on Thursday and play the part of Palmer's safety blanket, the Raiders should be able to move down the field.
Darren McFadden is expected to play, but little is expected from him. If he (along with the rest of the Raiders backfield) can contribute anything in the run game, it will be a huge positive. The last thing Palmer wants is Miller being able to rush him on every play.
Defensively, the Raiders can't really stop Manning, but they can contain him. Look for them to stick to their sub-packages for most of the night (even against the Broncos' base sets). If the Raiders can stop the Broncos' injury-riddled run game with an extra defensive back on the field, they have a chance of pressuring Manning and forcing an errant throw or getting a pick on a miscommunication with one of his receivers.
Bold Prediction: Peyton Manning Throws Two Interceptions
That plan for the Raiders should work, at least in part, coupled with the systematic problems going on the road for a Thursday game present. Manning has a couple of multi-interception games this season, and while no one thinks the Raiders should be his next, it's possible that a slow start against a defense eager to prove its mettle will force him into a few mistakes.
Player of the Game Prediction: Von Miller
Sadly (for the Raiders), that won't matter much because any mistakes Manning makes will be ultimately dwarfed with the mistakes Palmer is forced into. The Raiders just don't have the talent to stick with the Broncos. Despite the mistakes and regardless of any slow start, Manning will turn this game into a shootout, and Miller will turn the lights out.
Final Score Prediction: Broncos 28; Raiders 10
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."