The New England Patriots (7-1) remain the class of the AFC and the heavy favorite to win the conference’s spot in Super Bowl LI. Bill Belichick's squad has 10/11 odds of coming out of the conference, well ahead of the competition.
But midway through the season, there are some emerging teams out west. The upstart Oakland Raiders (6-2) and defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos (6-2) will battle for the right to be called the Patriots immediate rival in Sunday night’s crucial AFC West showdown at Oakland Coliseum.
The nationally televised matchup already has several critical storylines bubbling to the surface, including the Raiders resurrection. With quarterback Derek Carr playing at an MVP level, Oakland’s one victory away from equaling their 7-9 record last season and is well on pace to finish above .500 for the first time since 2002, the last time the Raiders made the playoffs and the Super Bowl.
Denver has managed to stay among the AFC’s elite thanks to arguably the league’s best defense forcing the most turnovers (16) and the most sacks (26), while holding opponents to 17 points a contest, fifth-best in the NFL.
Despite some key departures like Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan, the unit remains organized and effective. Linebacker Von Miller’s continued dominance and an outstanding secondary that includes T.J. Ward, Chris Harris, and Aqib Talib and other defensive backs have kept Denver in the hunt with tight victories over the Carolina Panthers in the season opener, and against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.
The matchup will truly pit offensive prowess against defensive might, especially with the way Carr’s played this year. The third-year signal caller has thrown 17 touchdowns to only three interceptions, and in part due to second-year receiver Amari Cooper’s progress, the Raiders are third in the NFL in total offensive yards gained and sixth in points scored at 26.9 a game. Last season, Oakland was No. 24 and No. 17 in yards and points, respectively.
And whoever wins will take firm command of the AFC West, which has proven to be one of the toughest in the NFL this season. With the 5-2 Kansas City Chiefs lurking, the division is the only one in the NFL with three teams sporting five victories. And the San Diego Chargers, mired by poor play late in games, can still make some noise at 3-5.
Though they will be at home following a two-game swing in Florida, the Raiders have actually made a name for themselves on the road this season with a 5-0 record. However, the Raiders are only 1-2 at home, while the Broncos are 2-1 on the road.
Still, even though Denver’s defense looks just as sharp as last season’s there is at least one weakness the Raiders could exploit, and take pressure off Carr. The Broncos are way back at No. 25 in the league against the run, allowing 939 total yards and 4.3 yards per attempt.
That could bode well for the Raiders' improved running game. After missing two games with a toe injury, running back Latavius Murray leads Oakland’s multifaceted rush with 279 yards and five touchdowns, followed by rookies DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard. That trio has Oakland ranked fifth in rushing, compared to No. 28 last season.
The Broncos, who finished 17th in the league rushing last season, have seen their running game trudge along for much the season and face depth issues after C.J. Anderson was placed on injured reserve following surgery to repair a tear in the meniscus of his right knee.
Rookie Devontae Booker has stepped up, most recently tallying 84 total yards and a touchdown in the victory over San Diego, but he also suffered a sore shoulder in the win and head coach Gary Kubiak said Booker will be “day-to-day,” according to the team’s official website.
Betting Odds: Oakland -1 (-105); Denver +1 (-115) via Bovada.lv
Over/Under: 43.5 points