Imagine I told you at the beginning of the 2018-19 NFL season that after 12 games, the Denver Broncos would be 6-6 and on a winning streak, having just beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers along with 2 other tough AFC rivals. A 10-6 record and a playoff bid were within the team’s grasp.
What’s more, the ease of the schedule to follow would turn out to be almost too good to be true. To get to 8-6, all Denver would need is a win over the woebegone San Francisco 49ers, followed by an even easier lay-up at Mile High over the puny Cleveland Browns.
Uh…never mind all that. The 6-6 part was true enough, as well as the schedule for games 13 and 14…but the results aren’t what you might have expected. Denver is 6-8 and eliminated from the postseason, and the organization is now busy trying to paint a rosy picture of what could improve in 2019-20.
Meanwhile, the Oakland Raiders are a housecleaning project in the franchise’s first autumn in the 2nd of 2 reigns of head coach Jon Gruden. Gruden’s original stint with the Silver & Black went pretty darn well, but so far the rebuilding project is anything but pretty. Facing uncertainty about the future location of the club, torn by trades and players’ frustration over the front office scuttling the season, the Raiders are 3-11 and tied with Arizona for the worst win-loss record in the NFL.
That’s enough for the NFL odds-makers in Las Vegas to mark the visiting Broncos a (-3) point spread favorite over the Raiders headed into Monday Night Football on Christmas Eve.
Who: Denver Broncos at Oakland Raiders
When: Monday, December 24th, 8:15 PM EST
Where: Oakland Alameda Coliseum, Oakland, CA
Lines: DEN (-3) at OAK (+3) / O/U Total: (43)
Denver has indeed shown improvement this season, cultivating a decent starting QB in Case Keenum. But the 6th-year Houston product has fallen prey (along with the entire Bronco attack) to an old NFL dilemma – you can be great between the 20 yard lines but what happens in the Red Zone is all-important.
Keenum has passed for a very respectable 3,396 yards with a 62.1% completion rate. However, he can’t get the ball over the goal line, and gives it away far too often. The QB has 12 interceptions and 8 fumbles next to only 15 TD passes, a hideous ratio in modern football. His 2 interceptions (and 2 sacks-against) against Cleveland helped the Browns escape with a 17-16 win and drive the Coloradans over the edge in frustration. Keenum averaged less than 5 yards per pass attempt the previous week as the Broncos lost to San Francisco by 6 points.
But it would help to have some support in the ground game. Denver’s rushing attack posted prodigious stats through mid-season but Keenum came close to being the team’s top rusher with 24 yards on the scramble vs San Fran, and the entire Denver backfield rushed for 32 yards on 20 carries against Cleveland.
What happened to the running game? The Denver Post opines that opposing defenses are unafraid of the downfield pass and keying on star tailback Phillip Lindsay:
Lindsay averaged 6.1 yards per carry through his first 13 NFL games. The 49ers wised up nine days ago, single covering the Broncos’ young receiving corps and mostly loaded the line of scrimmage to stop Lindsay, whom they held to 30 yards on 14 carries. Cleveland copied the game plan Saturday night and held Lindsay to 14 carries and 24 yards. “Y’all see it, everybody is there,” Lindsay told reporters after Denver’s 17-16 loss Saturday night. “It’s hard when you have eight (defenders) in the box.”
Like carry No. 13 against the Browns, with Denver facing second-and-3 from the Cleveland 8-yard line late in the game with a chance to score the go-ahead touchdown. That’s when offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave called a run up the middle into an eight-man box while wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton received single coverage toward the far boundary. Lindsay went nowhere. Denver Post game tracking counted at least eight Lindsay rushes into an eight-man box against the Browns.
The Broncos’ inability to stretch defenses vertically against man-to-man coverage magnifies the absence of wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (Achilles) over the past two games. Keenum has since completed 61 percent of his passes for an average of 221.5 yards per game with two interceptions to one touchdown. Tim Patrick has emerged as Keenum’s favorite target in that span, 12 catches for 150 yards, but Denver’s second-leading pass catcher with two weeks left remains Demaryius Thomas (36) — traded Oct. 30 and absent from the roster for six games.
Meanwhile, the Denver defense is playing just well enough to get beat despite Von Miller’s fierce edge rush and upbeat attitude in the locker room.
Oakland also beat Pittsburgh 2 weeks ago, and for all the Steelers’ struggles, that result still has to be considered something of a miracle. Gruden traded away Amari Cooper who is now starring in Big D. He hasn’t helped Derek Carr get back on track – the talented veteran QB has only 4 more passing TDs than Keenum in 2018. The offensive line and defensive backfield are each thin and getting worse with late-season attrition.
The Raider defense ranks 26th in the league, and while not giving up substantially more yardage than Denver’s defenders, is allowing almost 30 points per game. The Broncos are a more resourceful and inspired unit even with both franchises eliminated from this season’s race to the postseason.
Oakland is capable of scattered good performances, like any NFL team in this era. But don’t look for a fine-tuned effort at a deadened home venue on Monday night. The Broncos have won twice as many games and are a more solid football team that is farther along in its rebuilding phase.
Take Denver to cover (-3) on Christmas Eve.