Carson Palmer gets an opportunity to atone for a rough debut with the Silver and Black when the veteran quarterback makes his first start as a Raider in Sunday's game against the fellow AFC West member Broncos, who'll be hoping for signs of progress out of Tim Tebow when the struggling youngster takes the field at the Oakland Coliseum.
The Tebow experiment has produced very mixed results so far for Denver. The popular collegiate legend was able to rally the Broncos to a resounding overtime victory at error-prone Miami in Week 7 in his first outing upon taking over for displaced starter Kyle Orton, but the offense was stagnant under his command for the majority of the game. His subsequent start was an utter disaster, with the 2010 first-round draft choice looking overmatched all throughout the club's 45-10 dismantling by Detroit last Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Tebow had an interception and a fumble returned for touchdowns by the Lions and was sacked seven times by an aggressive Detroit defense. The former Heisman Trophy winner did manage to throw a late touchdown pass with the outcome already long decided, but completed just 18-of-39 throws on the afternoon.
In his two starts since supplanting Orton, Tebow has hit on a subpar 47 percent of his pass attempts and taken 13 sacks.
Though Denver head coach John Fox said his 24-year-old project would remain under center for this week's game, he stopped short of making a long-term commitment.
"For this week, yes," answered Fox when asked if Tebow would start against the Raiders. "He had really [just] two starts. I think he's a young quarterback, as we've mentioned. We're getting to know him better, and he's getting to understand the offense better with each one of those snaps. I think at the end of the day, we get to see if he can improve and get better in the passing game."
The Raiders are expecting far better results out of Palmer than the two-time Pro Bowl honoree delivered in a hastened relief stint during the club's last contest. Just five days after being acquired from Cincinnati in a blockbuster trade, Palmer replaced an equally-ineffective Kyle Boller in the second half of Oakland's Oct. 23 bout with Kansas City and proceeded to throw three interceptions while mustering 116 yards on an off-target 8-of-21 passing.
Oakland shipped two high draft choices to the Bengals to land Palmer, who had been sitting out the season while embroiled in a long-running feud with Cincinnati owner Mike Brown, shortly after No. 1 signal-caller Jason Campbell sustained a likely year-ending broken collarbone in a Week 6 victory over Cleveland.
The Raiders have had a bye week in between their ugly 28-0 loss to the Chiefs and this game, which has enabled Palmer to get a much better grasp of the offense.
"There's no comparison to last week," he said on Wednesday. I'm comfortable with the entire playbook. I'm comfortable with the guys. I'm comfortable with the snap count, and where to stand in the huddle. Every little bit that I've been around here, every second that I've had, I just learn more and more."
To help provide its new quarterback with some familiarity, Oakland signed veteran wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh on Tuesday. He and Palmer were teammates with the Bengals for six seasons from 2003-08.
The Kansas City loss snapped a string of eight consecutive wins against AFC West competition for Oakland, which is now locked in a three-way tie with both the Chiefs and San Diego for first place in the division. That streak included a 23-20 road triumph over the Broncos in this year's season opener in which Raiders running back Darren McFadden rushed for 150 yards.
McFadden sprained his right foot against the Chiefs, however, and is not expected to be available for Sunday's tilt.
Denver may have its leading rusher back in the fold, though, after Willis McGahee returned to practice this week after sitting out against Detroit with a broken right hand. The offseason addition is listed as questionable for this game, but will probably suit up barring any setbacks.
Oakland has a 59-41-2 advantage over the Broncos in a series between former AFL rivals that dates back to 1960 and has won four straight meetings with Denver following its above-mentioned Week 1 victory. The Raiders routed the Broncos twice in sweeping last year's season series, following up a 59-14 blowout in Denver in which Oakland set a franchise record for points in a game with a 39-23 home decision last December. The Broncos had bested the Raiders at the Coliseum in each of the previous two years, registering a 41-14 win there in 2008 and a 23-3 verdict in 2009, and are 6-2 in their last eight stops in Oakland.
The road team has prevailed in six of the past seven 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 matchups, with Denver winning the 1977 AFC Championship by a 20-17 count and the then-Los Angeles Raiders dealing the Broncos a 42-24 defeat in a 1993 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Fox, who spent two seasons as the Raiders' defensive coordinator from 1994-95, dropped to 1-2 lifetime against Oakland with this past September's loss, with the first two encounters coming during his nine-year reign as the Carolina Panthers' head coach. First-year Raiders sideline boss Hue Jackson won his only prior clash with both the Broncos and Fox with Oakland's Week 1 result.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Having a healthy McGahee (460 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 2 total TD) should bring a boost to a Denver offense that's put up just 28 points in Tebow's two starts, as the rejuvenated 30-year-old put together back-to-back 100-yard efforts in games against Green Bay and San Diego to begin October and followed up with a respectable 76 yards on 18 carries in the comeback win at Miami in Week 7. He'll likely work in a timeshare with former first-round pick Knowshon Moreno (123 rushing yards, 9 receptions, 1 TD) if active on Sunday, with Tebow (412 passing yards, 4 TD, 1 INT) bringing an added dimension to the Broncos' eighth-ranked ground attack (125.9 ypg) with his outstanding scrambling ability. The ex-University of Florida star has ran for 122 yards in his two extended appearances this year, and Denver has averaged a notable 186 rushing yards over that stretch. Throwing the ball and recognizing pressure have been different matters altogether, however. Tebow has been able to develop somewhat of a rapport with second-year receiver Eric Decker (30 receptions, 5 TD), who hauled in six passes for 72 yards and a touchdown in last week's loss, and fellow wideout Eddie Royal (12 receptions) has been targeted often by the young quarterback as well. The Broncos would also like to get talented 2010 first-round selection Demaryius Thomas more involved in the passing game, though the big-bodied wide receiver has come up only four grabs totaling 37 yards in two games since returning from a torn Achilles.
The Lions were able to frustrate Tebow by relentlessly blitzing him last week, and expect the Raiders to follow suit. Oakland possesses a good pass-rushing outside linebacker in Kamerion Wimbley (24 tackles, 1 sack) and a pair of tackles who can collapse the pocket in six-time Pro Bowler Richard Seymour (20 tackles, 5 sacks) and Tommy Kelly (21 tackles, 2.5 sacks), with the duo combining for three of the team's five sacks of Orton in its Week 1 meeting with Denver. Both players were factors against the run in that game as well, helping the Raiders limit their divisional foe to a mere 38 rushing yards on 13 attempts. The defense has been pretty tough in that area as of late, even with valuable middle linebacker Rolando McClain (43 tackles, 1 sack, 6 PD) not at 100 percent due to an ankle problem, as the Silver and Black have held their last three opponents to an average of 3.2 yards per carry. A secondary led by speedy cornerback Stanford Routt (24 tackles, 1 INT, 6 PD) and strong safety Tyvon Branch (56 tackles, 1 INT) has also had its moments, with Oakland allowing just a 53.1 percent completion rate on the season, third-best in the NFL.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
Though the probable absence of McFadden (614 rushing yards, 19 receptions, 5 total TD) robs the Raiders of its best playmaker, there's still depth on hand for an offense that's compiled the second-highest rushing total (159.3 ypg) in the league and amassed 190 yards on the ground in its early-season win over the Broncos. Understudy Michael Bush (237 rushing yards, 3 TD, 9 receptions) is a capable fill-in who lends a more physical presence to the backfield than McFadden, though he doesn't have his teammate's explosiveness, while rookie blazer Taiwan Jones showed big-play potential in the preseason and should get more of a chance to demonstrate his abilities on Sunday. In Palmer, Oakland is getting a quarterback with significant starting experience and two 4,000-yard seasons under his belt, though those came in 2006 and 2007 and he's coming off a year in which he threw 20 interceptions. Jackson is counting on the 34-year- old Houshmandzadeh to add a seasoned and dependable option out of the slot and help young wide receivers Darrius Heyward-Bey (27 receptions, 434 yards, 1 TD), Denarius Moore (14 receptions, 2 TD) and Jacoby Ford (11 receptions) through their growing pains. The light has seemed to come on for Heyward-Bey after two straight disappointing seasons to begin his career, as the 2009 No. 7 overall pick has averaged 96.3 receiving yards and 17.5 yards per catch over the last four games.
Palmer should fare better this week than he did in his Oakland introduction, as he's now more well-versed in Jackson's offense and will be going up against a Denver defense that's been generally awful against the pass this season. The Broncos are giving up nearly 250 yards per game through the air and have surrendered 14 touchdown passes to date, with enemy quarterbacks having completed over 68 percent of their throws. Father time is beginning to catch up with cornerbacks Champ Bailey (16 tackles) and Andre Goodman (24 tackles) and safety Brian Dawkins (27 tackles, 2 sacks), all of whom are 33 years old or above, and the aging backfield has only gotten marginal help from a pass rush that's been sporadic with the exception of impressive rookie linebacker Von Miller (26 tackles), who's recorded six sacks in his first seven pro games. Though Denver had trouble containing McFadden in the opener and permitted 206 rushing yards in a loss to San Diego back in Week 5, the run defense has shown improvement over the last two weeks, with middle linebacker Joe Mays (38 tackles) and tackle Brodrick Bunkley (16 tackles) both grading out well as of late.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Obviously, how each of these teams' recently-promoted quarterbacks perform will have a major bearing on the outcome of this contest. It goes without saying that another six-interception output like Palmer and Boller had in Oakland's last game isn't going to bring about success, while Tebow will need to show he can consistently make some plays with his arm to prevent the Raiders from stacking the box and focusing solely on stopping Denver's ground game.
Tebow's cause would be greatly aided by a productive afternoon out of McGahee, though ball security could be an issue with the veteran running back essentially playing with one hand. Denver's offense isn't good enough to overcome costly turnovers as presently comprised.
Special teams. Both clubs made their mark in this department in the first meeting, with Oakland kicker Sebastian Janikowski making three pivotal field goals that included an NFL record-tying 63-yarder and Decker scoring one of the Broncos' two touchdowns on a 90-yard punt return. If this game winds up close, a big special teams play on either side could prove to be the difference. Janikowski missed the Kansas City loss with a hamstring injury, but isn't believed to be in danger of sitting out on Sunday.
While Tebow's struggles have drawn much attention from the national media, not a whole lot was said about the Raiders' terrible showing on offense in their last outing. Oakland did have an excuse for that horrid performance, as Palmer clearly wasn't prepared to play and Boller isn't a passable option at quarterback, but the loss of McFadden will be felt. There's also a theory that Jackson isn't taking this game overly seriously considering Denver's offensive woes and the fact the Raiders have an important game in San Diego on the following Thursday, which could mean that a few key regulars who are banged up may be rested. Palmer can't be considered a sure thing at this stage, so Oakland's going to need to rely on its defense and strong running game to come through. The Raiders are still the better team here, though obtaining a victory may not be as easy as at first glance.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Raiders 23, Broncos 17