The Denver Broncos are in a must-win position Sunday to keep their playoff hopes alive. After losing a crucial matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday in Denver, the Broncos must essentially win-out to have a chance at postseason play.
According to FiveThirtyEight, Denver’s chances of making the playoffs rise from the five percent chance as it sits today to above an 89 percent clip if the team wins out.
This week’s opponent, the Las Vegas Raiders thumped the Broncos in Denver earlier this season. But it should be noted that a lot has changed for both teams since that game. The Raiders have lost key contributors due to on-field injuries and off-field decision-making. However, both teams enter the game with identical 7-7 records and hopes of playing late in January.
The Broncos will be without their starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and the Raiders will likely be without their top offensive playmaker in tight end Darren Waller.
Drew Lock must be smart when targeting Casey Hayward and Nate Hobbs
The safety position in Las Vegas has been okay at best, but the Raiders have several solid players outside in the secondary. The Raiders’ secondary player that should worry the Broncos most is veteran Casey Hayward.
The veteran Hayward has earned a grade of 77.7 from Pro Football Focus this year. As he has done through his entire career, Hayward continues to be solid and routinely puts himself in a position to break up key passes.
— NFL (@NFL) September 15, 2019
Hobbs is currently on the COVID-19 Reserve List, and is likely out Sunday.
The rookie, fifth-round selection out of the University of Illinois has shown surprised everyone his young time in the league. Hobbs has been a revelation for the Raiders, as he has stifled some of the league’s best receivers this season.
Rookie CB Nate Hobbs' notable performances 🔒
1 catch, 0 yards
2 catches, 19 yards
1 catch, 2 yards
1 catch, 2 yards
Allen Robinson II
1 catch, 12 yards
2 catches, 16 yards pic.twitter.com/fy3gkjFvSg
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) December 23, 2021
Regardless of how well Hayward and Hobbs have been, neither should deter Lock from taking opportunities to get his playmakers the ball outside.
The Raiders are 25th in pass defense DVOA according to Football Outsiders. This suggests that Las Vegas can still be beaten outside when tested.
Tim Patrick, Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton have been underutilized for weeks and this is the week to reignite that group.
Last week, Lock’s confidence to give his guys a chance paid dividends as Patrick caught the wide receiving corps first touchdown since their trip to Dallas in Week 10.
Tim Patrick with the SNAG for 6 pic.twitter.com/yEoD9CXsmA
— PFF DEN Broncos (@PFF_Broncos) December 19, 2021
Lock’s aggressiveness and arm talent will be a shot in the arm to an anemic passing game. That said, it is well documented that Lock’s confidence hits recklessness at times.
The Raiders may have some difficulty scoring points, so Lock’s aggression must be calculated to keep Las Vegas from having cheap scoring opportunities off of turnovers.
The Broncos’ former starter had a dreadful showing against the Raiders in Las Vegas last year and will look to right the ship this season.
With the team’s season, and potentially Lock’s future starting opportunities in the balance, look for No. 3 to push the ball down the field.
Who’s better in the slot, Bryce Callahan or Hunter Renfrow?
With Waller injured over the last three weeks, the Raiders have needed other players to step up. Without many playmakers, the Raiders have looked to Hunter Renfrow has become the team’s primary weapon.
Renfrow’s impact is not fully recognized as he has only earned a grade of 79.5 from PFF. But, where Renfrow is truly special is from the slot on or on third or goal-to-go situations.
Renfrow’s shifty route-running allows him to win almost any matchup. He uses quick feet and a calculated plan to beat more pathetically gifted defenders off the line, oftentimes leaving them in his dust.
This route from Hunter Renfrow 🤧
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) December 12, 2021
Meanwhile, Bryce Callahan returned for Denver last week and played well. He has been a solid contributor for the Broncos when he has been on the field.
That is not recognized in his lowly grade of 59.0 from PFF. However, most cannot argue the impact Callahan’s presence has on the field. Last week, the Broncos secondary did a great job against a very talented Bengals group. Callahan’s play in the slot was a big part of the group’s success.
This is slightly overthrown, but great coverage by Bryce Callahan on Ja'Marr Chase. Bengals got what they wanted in a one on one opportunity downfield. Broncos coverage took it away. pic.twitter.com/p7iyDpRCdT
— Mike (Sans) (@bengals_sans) December 20, 2021
If Callahan can slow down the highly targeted Renfrow, the Broncos will shut down the Raiders’ best offensive threat. This would allow the Broncos to heavily focus on stopping the run game. If Denver can get the Raiders into obvious passing situations, Fangio can change up looks to stop Derek Carr. And a rattled Carr has shown he will make a questionable decision. The veteran has thrown an unusually high 11 interceptions so far this season.
Broncos – Raiders kicks off at 2:25 p.m. MST on CBS.