Monday Night Football will play host to the AFC West during Week 3, as the Oakland Raiders travel to play the Denver Broncos. While the name value of each organization may suggest that this will be a mismatch, the high-stakes nature of this meeting is undeniable.
The question is: Which players are under the most pressure during Week 3?
The Broncos enter this game at 2-0 with consecutive dominant victories over the past two Super Bowl champions. Peyton Manning has thrown for nine touchdowns to zero interceptions and the defense has come up with five sacks and six interceptions with both Champ Bailey and Von Miller sidelined.
Just don't think the Broncos are exempt from pressure.
The Raiders have been a pleasant surprise at 1-1, losing 21-17 at the Indianapolis Colts and taking a 19-9 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor has been a pleasant surprise, and the defense has been strong.
Just don't think that means the Raiders have answered all of their questions.
Winston Justice, Denver Broncos
Position: Offensive Tackle
Experience: 8th Season
2013 Season Statistics: N/A
The Broncos have been absolutely magnificent offensively, and a major reason of that success has been Manning's play at quarterback. Not only has he been precise with his throws, but the offensive line has only allowed three sacks through two games.
That monstrous protection unit just suffered a critical blow.
Broncos lose OL Ryan Clady for season (left foot). Clady was in charge of protecting Peyton Manning's blind side pic.twitter.com/FHwr9RqjGO— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 18, 2013
It goes without saying that losing a quarterback's blindside protector is devastating.
According to Stuart Zaas of DenverBroncos.com, the Broncos have signed Winston Justice to step in for Ryan Clady at offensive tackle. Justice, 6'6" and 317 pounds, was a second-round draft choice in 2006, but he has played in just 59 games in that time.
Denver will need him to live up to his long-removed potential in 2013.
Justice will be protecting the player who makes Denver the contender that it is. If he's able to slow down the pass rush, the Broncos will be able to overcome Clady's absence and truly make a push for the Super Bowl title.
If Justice underwhelms, however, the Broncos will have a void that no team wants to possess: the inability to protect the quarterback.
Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders
Position: Running Back
Experience: 6th Season
2013 Season Statistics: 2 GP; 36 ATT, 177 YDS, 1 TD; 7 REC, 46 YDS
When he's healthy, there's no question that running back Darren McFadden is a truly elite running back. Unfortunately, McFadden has never played in more than 13 games in a season, seeing the field in just 21 of the Raiders' past 34 outings.
For that reason, McFadden will be under pressure with every passing week until he completes a full regular season.
McFadden started relatively slow against the Colts, picking up 66 yards and a rushing touchdown on 20 touches from scrimmage. During Week 2, McFadden elevated his level of play with 129 yards rushing on 19 carries, also catching four passes for 28 yards.
If Oakland is to pull out an upset of the Broncos, it's going to need McFadden to be at his best.
Playing with Pryor certainly helps, as the former Ohio State Buckeyes star runs the read option as well as any quarterback in the NFL. With Von Miller still out, the opportunity is present for Pryor and McFadden to light up Denver's defense and create a ballgame.
If McFadden is unable to provide his expected level of play, however, this game will get ugly—an unfortunate truth for the Raiders' best offensive player. The only question at this point is whether or not McFadden can stay healthy long enough to be effective.
Knowshon Moreno, Denver Broncos
Position: Running Back
Experience: 5th Year
2013 Season Statistics: 2 GP; 22 ATT, 121 YDS, 2 TD; 6 REC, 51 YDS
In 2009, the Broncos selected running back Knowshon Moreno with the No. 12 overall draft choice. Since then, he's never once rushed for 1,000 yards or 10 touchdowns, despite garnering the hype of a superstar in the making.
Now, Moreno will have the opportunity to prove he should be the featured back over Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman—who thought we'd be saying that just five seasons into Moreno's career?
Will Knowshon Moreno ever live up to his potential?
Moreno erupted during Week 2, going off for 93 yards and two touchdown on 13 carries. He also caught three passes for the second consecutive week and has outperformed his teammates in every phase of the game.
We shouldn't be too surprised.
During the final six weeks of the 2012 NFL regular season, Moreno ran for 510 yards and three touchdowns. That success seems to have carried over to 2013, as Manning's presence seems to have righted the ship for the mercurial running back.
Against the Raiders, it's time we see whether or not Moreno can ever be a consistent producer.
The last time the Broncos played the Raiders, Moreno torched Oakland for 119 yards and a touchdown on 32 rushes. He also caught four passes for 48 yards and reminded the world of why he was once the next big thing.
The question is: Can Moreno make the leap at 26, or is this just another flash of brilliance? We're soon to find out.