When the 1-2 Denver Broncos beat the Oakland Raiders, 37-6, on Sept. 30, it was the first time all season that Peyton Manning and the Denver offense really got into sync. Since then, Manning's team lost a game to the New England Patriots, and responded to that setback by rolling off seven straight wins. Now, the 9-3 Broncos have clinched the AFC West, and they're as dangerous as any team in the NFL. Manning is playing as well as he ever has, and a resurgent defense is surprising all opponents.
But it was that first win over the Raiders that got the ball rolling. Denver didn't punt once, and Manning completed 78 percent of his passes against a Raiders defense that was supposed to be much better than it's been all season -- under the supervision of current head coach and former Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.
"My plan was to play fast," Manning said after that game. "We went no-huddle predominately the whole game. In the second quarter, we kept getting some penalties, and anytime you have penalties or incompletions, it sort of takes away the rhythm of playing fast. The referees have to spot the ball, you have to walk the yardage back. So we were kind of hurting ourselves. I know I talked about last week finding a week for the offense, defense and special teams to be all playing well at the same time and feeding off of each other. We certainly did that."
They certainly did. All Allen could do was to step back and admire the team that had just waxed his new squad.
"They outcoached us, they outplayed us, they beat us in every phase of the game, so there's not a lot of positive you can take from it," Allen said. "We've got to go back and go to work. We've got the bye week coming up so we're going to evaluate what we're doing schematically, what we're doing personnel-wise and we've got to come up with a way to play better."
So far, no good. The Raiders have fallen as far as the Broncos have ascended since then. They've lost their last five games, and at 3-9, there are a great many questions to be answered regarding the franchise's future. Things get even more complicated when the two teams meet up for a rematch at Oakland's O.co Coliseum. Allen will be dealing with the fact that his father passed away on Tuesday in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Allen left the team, but will be on the sidelines Thursday night.
"[Offensive coordinator Greg] Knapp stepped in and filled in and did a phenomenal job and took charge of meetings the way D.A. does and handled practice the same way D.A. does," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "It's a challenge. We understand he needs some time away and a chance to be with his family."
Broncos head coach John Fox, who knows Allen from their work together in Denver last season, certainly sympathized.
"I just want to pass on our condolences to Dennis Allen and his family on the passing of his father, Grady," Fox said on Tuesday. "Dennis was a good friend, was on the staff here a year ago. Most everybody here got a chance to meet his dad and so our well wishes and thoughts and prayers are with the Allen family."
Fox also said that the Broncos organization will be involved in the memorial services, bringing a human touch to one of the NFL's most bitter rivalries.
On the field, Denver seems to have all the advantages. Oakland's defense has the talent to be at least league-average, but it has given up 169 points in an 0-4 November. Knapp is running an offense without any specific and consistent dynamism, and Palmer has clearly seen his best days at quarterback. It's a rough go for an organization that is currently digging itself out of a serious salary cap hole.
"I'm trying to figure out how to make these decisions from a cap standpoint," first-year general manager Reggie McKenzie recently said. "Some players you'd like to keep if you had the money. But when I got here, Mark told me, 'Here's what we got. Here's what you're going to have to deal with in your first year.' It's my job to manipulate it."
The Raiders have already cut three defensive players this year -- cornerback Stanford Routt, and linebackers Kamerion Wimbley and Aaron Curry. In some cases, that's addition by subtraction, but the results won't show on the field for a while.
The Broncos, on the other hand are benefiting from more than just the five-year, $96 million gamble they took on Manning in the offseason -- Fox and the Denver front office has put together two straight drafts of high quality. 2011 first-round pick Von Miller is a sure finalist for the Defensive Player of the Year award, and lesser-known picks like Derek Wolfe, Rahim Moore, and Ronnie Hillman are paying dividends. Manning's addition has turned the receiver duo of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker into one of the NFL's most effective.
"I certainly hope that the timing with all the receivers has improved throughout the year," Manning said on Tuesday. "Experience is your best teacher and I think the more reps you get, especially in games, the better you are going to be. You can't get five years of experience in 12 games. Really, that's all we have, 12 games of experience, but Demaryius had an excellent game on Sunday, made two really nice touchdown catches and I think every time I play with him, I feel like we improve."
The Broncos have indeed improved since they took the Raiders apart in Week 4. That does not bode well for the home team.
Pick: Broncos 35, Raiders 10