We’ve all heard the reports that the ratings for NFL games are down so far this season, but Sunday night should give them a needed boost.
This game is one of the first true marquee matchups of the year, and it’s been a long time coming.
Of course, the Denver Broncos are the defending Super Bowl champions. They boast one of the top defenses in the league, and are tied for first place in the AFC West. On the other side of the field will be the high-flying Oakland Raiders, who are sitting with them atop the division, each with 6-2 records.
Whoever wins this game will still have a long way to go, but will have an early leg up in the division, and will have sole possession of first place.
We have already seen the good and the bad from the Denver Broncos. Which team will show up for their biggest game of the season so far?
Here are five keys to the Broncos beating the Raiders, and taking over first place in the AFC West.
1. Move the chains on third down
The Broncos offense is currently ranked 27th in the league in yards per game. And their 24.3 points per game is a little deceiving, as the Denver defense has forced 16 turnovers and has put them in very advantageous positions. But a very big key on Sunday night will be for the Broncos to convert some third downs.
Currently, they are moving the chains on third downs just 35.9 percent of the time, ranking them 25th in the NFL.
That won’t be good enough against the Raiders.
With their high-powered offense, three and outs will force the Denver defense to be on the field far too much.
And while the Oakland defense has been giving up a significant amount of yardage and points, they do seem to play their best on third downs.
On Sunday night, Denver has to find a way to grind out some first downs.
2. Don’t let one player beat you…again
I think we all remember the home debacle against Oakland last year, when the Broncos allowed Raider defensive end Khalil Mack to completely dominate the game. Mack logged five sacks and seven quarterback hits as the Raiders beat the Broncos in Denver for the first time since 2011.
The Broncos failed to make much in the way of adjustments to the onslaught by Mack, and it cost them.
So far this season Mack has been good, but not great, compiling 39 tackles and five sacks. Yet, we know he has to be excited about going against the Denver offensive line, that allowed him the greatest game of his career
It will be up to Gary Kubiak, and the rest of the coaching staff to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
3. Generate consistent pressure on Derek Carr
No, I’m not just stating the obvious.
Of course, the Broncos want to put pressure on the Raiders’ talented quarterback that has already racked up 17 touchdowns, with only three interceptions.
But with starting cornerback and playmaker Aqib Talib getting a second opinion on his back, it could leave the Denver defensive backfield a little undermanned for the second week in a row.
Getting consistent pressure on Carr will keep him from getting too comfortable against them.
4. Stop the Raiders when they run
The Denver Broncos defense is still one of the elite units in the NFL, allowing just 301 yards and 17 points per game. But they have shown a vulnerability in the running game, giving up over 117 yards per game on the ground.
If Oakland is able to run the football successfully, it is going to keep the Denver defense off balance for most of the game.
5. Rely on your experience in big games
The 2016 Oakland Raiders are a talented, young team that is playing at a very high level to open the season. Oakland has started fast, and have gone on the road five times, winning all five of those games.
They are averaging over 400 yards and nearly 27 points per game.
Yet, they haven’t really played in any games of much significance, just yet.
Over the past five years, they have averaged just six wins per season and haven’t been to the postseason since 2002. Meanwhile, the Denver Broncos have been to the Super Bowl in two of the past three seasons.
That experience has to count for something.
Denver knows how to perform on the biggest of stages with the ultimate pressure on them. On Sunday night, they have to use that experience to overcome an up-and-coming team that wants to take away their title.