Oakland Raiders vs. Denver Broncos: Complete Week 17 Preview for Oakland

Brian Flores@@Raiders_TrackerContributor IIIDecember 26, 2014

Oakland Raiders vs. Denver Broncos: Complete Week 17 Preview for Oakland

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Oakland Raiders are one game away from concluding another disappointing season. But after a disheartening 0-10 start, they've have an inspirational 5-week stretch during which they've gone 3-2. All three wins came against playoff contenders, and the Raiders have disrupted or ruined all of those team's playoff aspirations. They have a chance to do it again this week against the Denver Broncos.

    Although it took too long to happen, the team has finally figured out a way to consistently be successful. Offensively, it begins with the running game. Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew were brought in to create a daunting two-headed monster out of the backfield. Unfortunately, that plan failed miserably. But the insertion of Latavius Murray into the game plan has changed that.

    Over the last five games, Murray is averaging 75.2 yards a game and 5.7 yards per attempt. He's provided a consistent and effective rushing attack, which has made Derek Carr's life much easier.

    Now that he has a running game, Carr has shown the ability to impose his will on the opposing defense. At times, he's dictated the pace and been in complete control of the action. This is impressive from any quarterback but especially from a rookie.

    Defensively, Khalil Mack has stepped in and immediately become one of the NFL's top linebackers. He's quietly made an impact all season, but the stats, particularly sacks, didn't show it. Now that the stats have begun to catch up—he has 17 tackles and three sacks in the last five games—he's showing just how much of a problem he's going to be for the rest of the league.

    Although the Raiders' season is over, they have one more shot to disrupt another team's playoff plans. The Broncos have to have this win to have a chance at home field throughout the playoffs or at least in their first game. Oakland can stop that. Here's how. 

Week 16 Recap

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    After an 0-10 start, the Oakland Raiders have had an interesting five-game stretch. The two losses were ugly and included a 52-0 beatdown at the hands of the St. Louis Rams. But the three wins have been very impressive. Oakland has looked good, even dominant, in these wins. This was the case last week against the Buffalo Bills.

    The offense has finally begun to establish an identity, and that's directly related to the emergence of Latavius Murray. Against Buffalo, the second-year back had 86 yards on 23 carries. That's an unimpressive average of 3.7 yards per attempt, but he had several big gains, including one for 25 yards. He forced the Buffalo defense to respect the run, which opened things up for Derek Carr.

    The rookie quarterback had an impressive game, especially given the defense he was facing. He finished 17-of-34 for 214 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Facing one of the league's best defenses and arguably the NFL's best defensive front, he was only sacked once and continuously found ways to move the ball and score points.

    The real story of the game was the play of Khalil Mack. He's slowly begun to show more of his ability, but this was the first game in which he truly imposed his will. Buffalo's rookie right tackle Seantrel Henderson was on his heels all game, and he had no chance of stopping Mack one-on-one. Unfortunately for him, he was left to do the job alone much of the day, and Mack dominated him.

    Mack finished with five tackles, a sack and three quarterback hits. But you had to watch the game to see just how much of an impact he had. The Buffalo offensive line never figured out a way to contain him. For four quarters, Mack single-handedly disrupted the Bills offense.

    Murray has emerged as this team's every-down back. Carr has proven to be the franchise quarterback this organization has spent more than a decade searching for. And Mack is the defensive game-changer the team can build around.

    It's too late for this season, but Oakland has begun to show some very positive signs for 2015.

News and Notes

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    And So It Begins...

    The hunt for Oakland's next head coach is officially underway. According to the San Jose Mercury News' Tim Kawakami, "Raiders owner Mark Davis said he plans to start interviewing coaching candidates early next week." The list of candidates hasn't been made known, but everyone knows that the name at the top of that list is Jim Harbaugh.

    However, Harbaugh's situation across the bay remains unsettled. At this point, there's little to no chance that he'll be back with the San Francisco 49ers. But it remains to be seen exactly how that relationship will come to an end. Will he be fired? If so, when? Or will the San Francisco front office hold onto him for a while in the hopes of getting something in return for him in a trade?

    Because of the unpredictable nature of Harbaugh's future, the Raiders can't wait around for him. The team has to be ready with a promising list of options. This list should include Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. He's been a hot name in NFL circles for years, and this looks to be the year that he finally gets named a head coach. The only question is where.

    Oakland's search for a head coach will begin with Harbaugh. But the team shouldn't put all of its eggs in this basket. For the first time in years, the Raiders are heading in the right direction. It's absolutely crucial that they select the right leader and continue the progress made to end this season.

    Big Red: The Right Man for the Job After All?

    The Raiders' coaching staff, particularly offensive coordinator Greg Olson, has caught the bulk of the criticism from fans this season. But general manager Reggie McKenzie isn't far behind. He's been blamed for failing to infuse the roster with enough talent both in free agency and through the draft.

    But there's evidence to suggest that he's performed much better than he's given credit for. CSNBayArea.com's Scott Bair reports that three Raiders made it onto this year's edition of Sports Illustrated's All-Rookie team: Derek Carr, Khalil Mack, and Justin Ellis.

    Carr and Mack are obvious selections, but Ellis is somewhat surprising given that he plays defensive tackle, not one of football's glamour positions. He's started 13 games, and Bair notes that he's racked up 14 runs stops, second among rookies.

    While they didn't make this list, fellow rookies T.J. Carrie and Gabe Jackson have been just as impactful in their rookie campaigns. Jackson took over at left guard early in the season, and he's already solidified himself at the position. Carrie, who was brought in primarily for his abilities as a kick returner, has impressed as a cornerback and has turned into an every-down player.

    That means that of McKenzie's eight picks in the 2013 draft, five have become starters and immediate contributors because they have played their way into these roles.

    Is this enough to save McKenzie's job? We'll find out in the coming weeks. But for now, it looks as if he's made a good case to stick around.

    Is Murray the Answer at Running Back?

    The Oakland offense has struggled for many reasons, but without a doubt the biggest is the absence of any sort of running game. Darren McFadden is averaging 3.5 yards per carry and has only 521 rushing yards. Maurice Jones-Drew has been even worse. He has only 43 rushing attempts on the year, and he's averaged 2.2 yards per carry in the process.

    What has to be noted is that McFadden and Jones-Drew have been unable to succeed, but it's not for lack of opportunity. This makes Murray look even better. He didn't really get a chance until Week 12, and he's earned more carries since. He's started the last two games, and he's shown that he can do what McFadden and Jones-Drew could not: find the running lanes and pick up yards in bunches.

    The question for Oakland now is whether or not Murray is the future at running back. It's still hard to tell given the limited sample of his work—he's only been a featured part of the offense for the last five games. But he's succeeded in the same system where McFadden and Jones-Drew have looked so bad.

    At the very least, Murray has done enough to head into next season as the top candidate to be the starting running back. He'll be given the opportunity to prove that he's the man for the job. Given what he's shown so far, it's very possible that he is.

Injury Report

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    David Seelig/Associated Press
    PlayerPositionInjury Status
    Brian LeonhardtTEOut for Season
    Denarius MooreWRDoubtful 
    Menelik WatsonRTDoubtful 
    Vincent BrownWRDoubtful 
    Chimdi ChekwaCB Doubtful 
    T.J. CarrieCBQuestionable 
    Ras-I DowlingDBQuestionable 
    Khalil MackLBProbable 
    Derek CarrQB Will Play

    After being out since Week 13, Leonhardt has finally been placed on season-ending injured reserve. He'd been out since then with a concussion, and Oakland has finally decided to call it a season. This leaves only Mychal Rivera as a viable tight end option for the offense.

    Watson has been out for several weeks, and there's been no indication that he's made any progress toward a return to action. He's still struggling with a foot and ankle injury, and he's likely done for the season.

    It's a disappointing end to the year for Watson, who was given the opportunity to lock down the right tackle position. He had his moments, but he remained inconsistent. He'll have the offseason to recover before trying to solidify his grasp on the position next season.

    This Sunday, it'll once again be veteran Khalif Barnes at right tackle.

    Moore remains out, and it's very possible that this is the end of his tenure as a Raider. If so, it'll signal a frustrating end to what was once a promising career for him in Oakland.

    At one time, he was the team's No. 1 receiver. But injures and underperformance have seen him slip further and further down the depth chart, culminating in him being a healthy scratch for several games. Now he's injured, but he was unlikely to see the field regardless, even on special teams.

    Carrie remains questionable as he continues to try and work through an ankle injury. With Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown already out for the season, Carrie has been depended on to start opposite DJ Hayden.

    If Carrie can't play, it leaves the already unimpressive Oakland cornerback depth chart even thinner. Chekwa, who's been unable to take advantage of several opportunities to play due to injury, remains questionable.

    That leaves Chance Casey, Neiko Thorpe and rookie Keith McGill as the only other options. Of these three, Thorpe is the most likely to be given a major increase in snaps.

    But it will also lead to an increased workload for McGill. He's seen very limited action, but he's shown promise. The final game of the season against a future Hall of Fame quarterback could be his first major opportunity to make a case for a bigger role next season.

    Mack is dealing with a hamstring injury, but unless he aggravates it prior to game day, he'll be ready to go. Carr is also listed on the injury report, but he will play on Sunday.

    All injury statuses and updates taken from CSNBayArea.com's Scott Bair.

X-Factor and Matchups to Watch

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Oakland Cornerbacks vs. Peyton Manning

    The Raiders are thin at cornerback. Paper-thin. Best-case scenario, they'll have second-year man DJ Hayden, who's yet to play a full season, and Carrie, who's showed promise but is still an inexperienced rookie. And that's if Carrie is available.

    Aside from that, Oakland is woefully short of options: Chekwa (questionable for Sunday), Casey, Thorpe and rookie McGill. That's not a list that's going to inspire confidence any Sunday but especially against Peyton Manning.

    It'll be crucial for the Oakland front seven to get to Manning and try to stop the problem at the source. But Manning has 17 years worth of experience dealing with all forms of a pass rush. Even if the Raiders can create pressure, he'll be ready to get rid of the ball quickly. This means that the Oakland cornerbacks, whoever they are this week, have to make plays.

    Given the options the Raiders have, it's unreasonable to think that they'll be able to stop Manning. What they instead have to focus on is being solid tacklers. Manning will find his receivers. What the Oakland cornerbacks have to do is reduce the damage after the catch.

    Khalil Mack vs. Louis Vasquez

    Last week, Mack had his best game. But he did it by dominating a rookie right tackle. This week, he'll be trying to repeat that performance against Vasquez, a six-year veteran.

    This will be a real test for Mack. He's starting to figure out how to make an impact more consistently. The question is whether he can do so against better competition, which is what he'll be facing in Vasquez. Mack has to be able to generate the same pressure and make Manning uncomfortable.

    As good as Manning has been throughout his career, he's starting to show more and more cracks in his armor. He's thrown 39 touchdowns, but he's also thrown 15 interceptions, including six in his last three games.

    If Manning faces pressure, he will make mistakes. Mack has to be a primary creator of this pressure.

    Donald Penn vs. DeMarcus Ware

    Carr can make plays if given the time. That'll be tough to come by as he faces Ware, who has 10 sacks. It'll be up to Penn to keep Ware away from the quarterback.

    Many fans clamored to keep Jared Veldheer last offseason, but the truth is that Penn has outperformed him. However, he has had some down games. That can't happen against a pass-rusher of Ware's caliber. If Ware gets going, his production will snowball. He'll be able to create more pressure more consistently, and he has the ability to disrupt the entire passing game on his own.

    The offense can't afford a bad pass-blocking game. It has to excel in this area, and that'll begin with Penn.

    X-Factor of the Week: Latavius Murray

    How do you beat Peyton Manning at home? You keep him off the field.

    Murray's stats don't accurately reflect the impact he's had since becoming Oakland's featured back. He's found openings that the other running backs have missed. More importantly, he's turned these openings into big plays.

    Denver has been tough against the run, allowing only 80.6 yards on the ground per contest. But the Raiders don't need Murray to have a big game. They need him to be effective. How many yards he totals won't be as important as how many first downs he can pick up and how many manageable third downs he can create.

    Even when his overall yards per carry isn't great, Murray's still been able to regularly come up with big gains. This will be crucial because it will lead to more first downs, which keeps the Oakland offense on the field and Manning off it.

Prediction

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos have four losses, but they've all come on the road. Playing a crucial game at home against a 3-12 team seems like a lock. Right?

    Maybe. But the Raiders have begun to figure out how to win. Murray has provided balance for the offense. Carr has continue to develop, and he's been able to come up with big plays more consistently.

    Defensively, Mack is starting to really come into his own. Earlier in the season, he would show a flash here and there, but he would also disappear for stretches of games. Now, he has to be accounted for on every down. And if the blocker relaxes for even a moment, Mack makes him pay.

    A lot of things have to go right for Oakland to win. The offense has to score enough points, something it's struggled to do. The defense has to get to Manning often, something good defenses struggle to do, and the Raiders don't have a very good defense overall.

    But the Raiders have grown a lot as a team in recent weeks. They've been able to make key plays when they need them. And the truth is that Manning has shown minor but undeniable decline. He's been more prone to mistakes, especially when under pressure. And the Oakland defensive front has been able to generate pressure more consistently.

    Can the Raiders win this game? Yes. And in the biggest upset of the regular-season's final week, they'll force just enough mistakes by Manning to make this happen.

    Prediction: Oakland 23, Denver 20

    Unless otherwise noted, all stats taken from ESPN.com.

    Share your thoughts and opinions on Twitter @BrianJ_Flores.

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