The Denver Broncos have been in control of the AFC West for the last five years. But that's changing this season. After more than a decade of futility, the Oakland Raiders are now at the top of the division. A win over the Broncos on Sunday Night Football this week would solidify their lead, and signal a changing of the guard.
In a season that's been littered with mediocrity, the Raiders have emerged as America's team. They feature one of the most prolific offenses in the league and head coach Jack Del Rio has a penchant for making gutsy play calls. Amazingly, they're doing all of this in the midst of a relocation controversy, with owner Mark Davis already acting as if the team's move to Las Vegas is official.
Perhaps no game embodies the Raiders better than their win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week. Despite racking up the most penalties in NFL history, Oakland won the game because of the strength of its offense. Quite simply, Derek Carr wouldn't allow them to lose.
It was a historic performance for the third-year quarterback, who set a franchise record in passing yards (513) and career highs in pass attempts (59) and completions (40). The brightest moment of the game came in overtime, when Carr connected with wide receiver Seth Roberts for a game-winning 41-yard touchdown on fourth down. It was the kind of play the Raiders have been able to pull off time and time again this season.
The 6-2 Broncos, meanwhile, have been winning on the strength of their defense. Even though they lost many key pieces on that side of the ball — including defensive lineman Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan — they've still allowed the sixth-fewest points in the league. Their defensive prowess was on display last week against the San Diego Chargers, as a three-interception performance led them to victory.
Much like they carried Peyton Manning last season, the Broncos' defense is making up for Trevor Siemian's poor play. The 2015 seventh-round pick hasn't been the same since he injured his shoulder in Week 5, accumulating a 75.9 QB rating over the last three weeks.
But even with that advantage at quarterback, it's difficult to pick the Raiders in this game. After all, they haven't posted a winning season since 2002.
Streaks of futility have to end eventually, however — unless you're the Cleveland Browns. And there's no better time for the Raiders than a Sunday night showdown against the Broncos. If any group of quarterbacks and receivers can expose the vaunted Broncos defense, it should be Carr and his talented cluster of wide receivers, including Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. Since Carr and Cooper are 25 and 22 years old, respectively, they're going to be around for a long time.
The Raiders may leave Oakland in a couple of years, but they're staying put now. With a win over the Broncos, Raider Nation could finally see their team return to AFC West supremacy.