By Dave Thomas
With half of the NFL regular season now in the books, the thought of playoff positioning and which teams are contenders and pretenders begins to take shape.
For the Oakland Raiders, are they really as good as their 6-2 record? If so, can they handle the pressure of fending off what look to be their two toughest challenges in the AFC West, the Denver Broncos and Kansas Chiefs, respectively?
That first big test will come this Sunday night in a prime-time affair on NBC, as the Raiders host the Denver Broncos. Both teams come into the game tied at 6-2.
As the Raiders know from their first pair of AFC West games earlier this season, don't expect any easy outings when two of the four teams get together.
Oakland, which beat San Diego (34-31) at home and lost to Kansas City (26-10) in the Bay Area, finishes up its home slate with divisional opponents when Denver comes calling. That in turn means that Oakland has trips in the second half of the season scheduled for Kansas City, San Diego and Denver. The meeting with the Broncos, slated for New Year's Day in the Mile High City, could be for all the marbles in the seemingly always competitive AFC West.
But before anyone looks ahead to the first day of the New Year, there is much on the line come this Sunday evening in Northern California.
These Foes Know Each Other Well
There is always something a little bit special when two old AFL rivals meet up.
It was not all that long ago when the Raiders were quite simply an afterthought in the AFC West. Not having been to the playoffs since reaching the Super Bowl in the 2002 season (Oakland lost to Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl 48-21), the Raiders are showing this season that they are indeed back.
Keep in mind that Oakland has not played a Sunday night game in front of a nationwide audience in a decade, yet another reason why this Sunday's contest has a lot riding on it.
Oakland, which leads the all-time series with Denver 60-49-2, is all too familiar with what is likely its main threat to winning the division this season. Although Kansas City is certainly capable of making a run at the title, and even San Diego can play the role of spoiler when all is said and done, it is likely to be the defending Super Bowl champs that stand in the Raiders' way.
Defending Home Turf
Even with Oakland being a perfect 5-0 on the road this season, the results at home could be better.
One of those two losses with the previously mentioned debacle in the rain and mud last month to Kansas City.
Although not a loss, Oakland looked to be on the ropes at times in their hard-fought 34-31 victory over San Diego earlier this season, too. If not for a botched hold on a potential game-tying field goal, the Chargers might very well have escaped the Black Hole with a victory.
If Denver comes into Oakland this Sunday night and leaves with a win, you have to figure that confidence will not be lacking for these Broncos by the time the rematch comes in Denver on Jan. 1.
Is Derek Carr The Real Deal?
Up to this point in the season, Oakland QB Derek Carr has looked very much like one of the top quarterbacks in the league through eight games.
Carr (2,321 yards passing on the season so far), who set an Oakland team mark with 513 yards of passing in the 30-24 overtime win in Tampa last Sunday against the Bucs, has thrown for 17 touchdowns against only three interceptions to date. Only in his third year, Carr has to be considered one of the candidates for league MVP up to this point and time.
With Denver's vaunted defense figuring to throw all kinds of coverages against Carr come Sunday evening, can the still relatively young quarterback guide the home team to victory?
The Broncos, led by the talented Von Miller (8.5 sacks) at linebacker, will enter the contest with the eighth-ranked defense to date, allowing 301.3 yards and 17 points per game (ppg). Conversely, Oakland comes into the game with the second-worst rated overall defense in the NFL (only winless Cleveland is worse).
So, while there will not be any divisional crowns handed out this Sunday evening when the dust has settled, the winner could stake a claim to being the favorite with seven games remaining.
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