Two longtime AFC West foes led by new head coaches get their respective 2011 campaigns underway under the Monday night lights of Sports Authority Field at Mile High, where the hometown Broncos will take on the Oakland Raiders.
Both teams made changes at the top after missing out on the playoffs last season, with the Raiders promoting former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to take over for Tom Cable and Broncos vice president of football operations John Elway tabbing former Carolina sideline boss John Fox in the hopes of restoring the once-proud franchise to its former glory.
Denver has been in a gradual decline since making three straight playoff appearances under Mike Shanahan from 2003-05, but hit rock-bottom with a brutal 4-12 season in 2010 that established a new low point for losses in a single year. The team fired one-time prodigy Josh McDaniels in December while in the midst of a five-game losing streak, and pounced on Fox soon after the veteran coach was released from his contract with the Panthers following a 2-14 finish while guiding a young and often undermanned squad.
Fox does have a prior history of producing quick turnarounds, having inherited a Carolina team that won just one time in 2001 and placing it in the Super Bowl just two years later. The 56-year-old compiled a 73-71 record and directed the Panthers to three playoff appearances in his nine years at the helm.
Oakland's postseason drought has lingered even longer, having last joined the fray with a trip to Super Bowl XXXVII during the 2002 season. The Raiders did display signs of turning the corner last year, however, with an 8-8 record that marked their first non-losing season since that AFC Championship run.
That show of improvement still wasn't enough for eccentric owner Al Davis to show Cable the door and replace him the innovative Jackson, the architect of an Oakland offense that generated the second-highest rushing total in the league and ranked sixth in points scored in 2010.
Many of the key contributors from that unit are back for this season, including emerging star running back Darren McFadden, quarterback Jason Campbell and speedy wide receiver Jacoby Ford. However, the Raiders must replace tight end Zach Miller, the team's leading receiver from a year ago, while the defense lost its premier member when perennial All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha fled to Philadelphia as the most sought-after free agent on the offseason market.
Denver, meanwhile, has undergone extensive changes to begin Fox's tenure, with most of the makeover coming to a pushover defense that allowed the most yards and points in the NFL last year.
The Broncos were especially awful in their two matchups with the Raiders, permitting over 500 total yards in both losses while giving up a total of 98 points. In last October's clash in Denver, Oakland rolled up 508 yards and set a franchise single-game high for points in a 59-14 blowout.
The Raiders fared exceptionally well against the remainder of the AFC West as well, going a perfect 6-0 within divisional play despite setting a dubious first as the only team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to sweep its division and fail to reach the playoffs.
Oakland has a 58-41-2 advantage over the Broncos in a series between former AFL rivals that dates back to 1960 and has won three straight meetings with Denver following last year's season sweep. The Raiders have also had recent success in Denver, entering this matchup with victories in each of their last three stops at the Mile High City. In addition to last season's road rout, Oakland edged the Broncos at Sports Authority Field in a 20-19 squeaker in 2009 and came through with a 31-10 victory there the previous year.
The road team has prevailed in five of the past six bouts in this series, with Oakland's Week 15 win at the Coliseum last season the lone exception.
In addition to the regular-season set, these teams have split a pair of postseason tilts, with Denver winning the 1977 AFC Championship by a 20-17 count and the then-Los Angeles Raiders prevailing in a 1993 AFC First-Round Playoff, 42-24.
Fox, who spent two seasons as the Raiders' defensive coordinator from 1994-95, went 1-1 against Oakland during his nine-year reign as Carolina's head coach. He led the Panthers to a 17-6 win at the Coliseum back in 2008, while his Carolina squad dropped a 27-24 decision to the Raiders in Charlotte in 2004.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Jackson had the Oakland running game humming for the majority of last season, with the Raiders averaging an impressive 155.9 yards per game on the ground, and the offense was unstoppable in that aspect in its two bouts with the Broncos. Oakland piled up 328 and 264 rushing yards in those contests, with McFadden (1157 rushing yards, 47 receptions, 10 total TD) amassing 284 yards by himself over the pair of wins. The dynamic back also doubles as a dangerous receiver out of the backfield and finished second among NFL players in yards from scrimmage per game (128.0) during the breakout season he had been forecasted for ever since being taken with the fourth overall pick of the 2008 draft. McFadden will once again team with 245-pound bruiser Michael Bush (655 rushing yards, 8 TD, 18 receptions) in a formidable rotation, with fleet-footed rookie Taiwan Jones to be sprinkle in as well. The Raiders have greater uncertainty amongst the receiving corps, though Ford (25 receptions, 2 TD) demonstrated great potential in averaging nearly 19 yards per catch as a rookie last year. Louis Murphy led the wideouts with 41 catches in 2010, but he's presently sidelined with a sore hamstring, while holdovers Chaz Schilens and 2009 first-rounder Darrius Heyward-Bey (26 receptions, 1 TD) have had careers riddled by injuries and inconsistency, respectively. After allowing the trusty Miller to follow Cable to Seattle as a free agent, Oakland signed ex-Giant Kevin Boss (35 receptions, 5 TD) to be the primary tight end, but he too will miss the opener due to a sprained knee. There is some stability at the quarterback position, however, with Campbell (2387 passing yards, 13 TD, 8 INT) putting together a respectable first season with the Silver and Black after arriving in a trade with Washington.
The Broncos were in sore need of a defensive overhaul after surrendering dreadful averages of 390.8 total yards and 29.4 points per game and ending 31st in the league against the run (154.6 ypg), and got one. Denver will not only be switching to a 4-3 alignment under Fox, but five new starters will be in place for the coming year. Two of them are rookies, with No. 2 overall choice Von Miller stepping in immediately at strongside linebacker and second-rounder Rahim Moore lining up at free safety alongside established vet Brian Dawkins (66 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT). Denver also gets back premier pass rusher Elvis Dumervil from a torn Achilles tendon that cost him all of 2010, and the impact end's presence was missed as evidenced by the Broncos' league-low total of 23 sacks. Dumervil had an NFL-best 17 all by himself in 2009, and he and Miller -- the consensus top pass rusher in this year's draft class -- should bring a noticeable upgrade to that area. The secondary is aging but experienced, with the 37-year-old Dawkins entering his 16th professional season and corners Champ Bailey (45 tackles, 2 INT, 13 PD) and Andre Goodman (17 tackles) up in years as well, though Bailey remains a top-level cover man who was named to a 10th career Pro Bowl in 2010. Weakside linebacker D.J. Williams (119 tackles, 5.5 sacks) paced last year's group in tackles and sacks, but is out for Monday's test with a dislocated elbow.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
After fielding trade offers for quarterback Kyle Orton (3653 passing yards, 20 TD, 9 INT) at the onset of training camp, the Broncos opted to keep the impending free agent around for a third straight year operating an offense that averaged over 250 yards per game through the air (7th overall) under McDaniels in 2010. Expect a shift in philosophy with the coaching change, however, as Fox was renowned for building potent ground attacks and his Carolina teams finished in the top three in rushing in two of the past three years. He'll employ a two- back system in which 2009 first-round choice Knowshon Moreno (779 rushing yards, 37 receptions, 8 total TD) will serve as the main carrier while being spelled by veteran addition Willis McGahee (380 rushing yards, 14 receptions, 6 total TD with Ravens), the owner of three career 1,000-yard seasons but better suited to be a complementary piece at this stage. They'll work behind a young offensive line that will have a rookie (Orlando Franklin) at right tackle and a pair of second-year men (J.D. Walton, Zane Beadles) at center and guard, respectively. When Denver does throw the ball, Orton will be often looking in the direction of 2010 breakout star Brandon Lloyd (77 receptions, 11 TD), the NFL's leader in receiving yards last season, with the steady Eddie Royal (65 receptions, 2 TD) and promising sophomore Eric Decker utilized as secondary targets.
Fox's run-oriented game plan could work well against an undersized Oakland defense that was gashed by opponents for an average of 133.6 rushing yards per game (29th overall) and 4.5 yards per attempt last season. The unit's strength is pressuring the passer, with outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (57 tackles, 9 sacks), end Matt Shaughnessy (56 tackles, 7 sacks) and tackles Richard Seymour (48 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Tommy Kelly (59 tackles, 7 sacks) all proven quarterback chasers that accounted for the majority of the team's healthy total of 47 sacks, tied for the second-highest total in the league in 2010. They may need to maintain that level of production to offset a secondary that will be hurt by the loss of Asomugha, one of the game's elite cover corners, as replacement Chris Johnson (16 tackles, 2 INT) isn't held in nearly the same regard and only raw rookies DeMarcus Van Dyke and Chimdi Chekwa stand behind both he and fellow starter Stanford Routt (55 tackles, 2 INT) on the depth chart. The Raiders allowed the second-fewest passing yards (189.2 ypg) in the NFL last season, in part due to the club's fierce pass rush but also because teams ran at will on the defense at times.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Neither of these teams were effective in stopping the run last year, so expect both offenses to attempt to expose those apparent weaknesses with the backfield depth each possesses. Clearly, the Broncos won't stand much of a chance on Monday if McFadden and Bush are able to run wild like they did in the two 2010 meetings.
While the Raiders did have much of a problem scoring points for much of last year -- and that was especially the case when they faced the Broncos -- the offense has often looked out of sync during a preseason in which the team lost all four of its games and managed just 44 points total over that span. Oakland will need be sharper for the games that count, as the defense doesn't appear to be the type that will stonewall the opposition on a routine basis.
Home field advantage hasn't meant much in this series as of late, with the visiting team prevailing in five of the past six matchups. Three of Denver's four 2010 victories came in the Mile High City, however, and the charged-up atmosphere that's expected to be present on Monday night could be a variable the Broncos can use to their benefit.
If judging this game solely on the outcomes of what took place last season, the Raiders should win in a cakewalk. This is a new year, however, and these are entirely different teams. Denver's defense will be better than the deplorable unit it fielded during the 2010 disaster, especially in the pass-rushing department with Dumervil now healthy and Von Miller ready to make an fast imprint on the league, while Oakland's injuries on offense and sluggish showing in the preseason are a concern. In this battle of new head coaches, go with the one with the edge in experience and whose team will be acclimated to the altitude of its home venue.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 26, Raiders 20