With their second straight AFC West title secured, the Denver Broncos will turn their attention toward earning a first round bye in the postseason.
That starts after a short week of preparation on Thursday in the Bay Area when Peyton Manning and Co. shoot to sweep their home-and-home season series with a struggling Oakland Raiders team.
Manning threw three touchdown passes last Sunday as Denver clinched the West with a 31-23 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
A leading candidate for his record fifth MVP award in his first season in the Rockies, Manning finished 27-for-38 with 242 yards and an interception as the Broncos won their seventh straight game and earned the 12th division crown in franchise history. Manning also moved past Dan Marino for second place on the all-time completions list with 4,986.
"The main goal coming into today was to get the win," said Manning after beating the Bucs. "We knew we were facing a hot team today and that we were going to have our hands full. That being said, it feels really good to win the division and we'll continue to improve as we head to the playoffs."
Demaryius Thomas totaled eight catches for 99 yards and two touchdowns against Tampa Bay, while Knowshon Moreno had 69 yards on 20 carries and added four catches for 14 yards in the win.
"At the end of the day everyone is rooting for that world championship," said Broncos head coach John Fox. "We still have a quarter of the football season left. It's a great accomplishment, but let's see what happens the rest of the way.
At 9-3 overall Denver is currently tied with New England and Baltimore for the second best record in the AFC but when tiebreakers are taken into account the club is fourth, meaning there is plenty of work to be done.
"We always say people remember what you do in December," said Fox. "So that's what we have ahead of us. We've got a division game coming up. Hopefully, we get to 5-0 in the division. There's a lot to play for. We'll see where that leads us."
Oakland, meanwhile, is headed in the opposite direction after dropping its fifth straight game on Sunday, a 20-17 home setback to a Cleveland Browns team which snapped an ugly 12-game road losing streak.
Carson Palmer passed for 351 yards and two touchdowns on 34-of-54 attempts in the loss but his interception in the fourth quarter led to the eventual game- winning touchdown.
"We can't turn the ball over right there," said Raiders coach Dennis Allen. "We've got all the momentum, we're moving the ball and we can't have that self-inflicted wound right there."
Brandon Myers hauled in a career-high 14 catches for 130 yards and a touchdown for the Raiders, who have already been eliminated from playoff contention for a 10th straight season.
Allen, who was the Broncos defensive coordinator before leaving to take the Raiders job this season, faced yet another hurdle the day after his team's latest setback when his father passed away.
Grady Allen, a former NFL linebacker, was originally hospitalized last week with heart problems and died at the age of 66.
"The organization wishes to extend its most sincere condolences to coach and his entire family," the team said through its Twitter account.
"I just want to pass on our condolences to Dennis Allen and his family on the passing of his father, Grady," Fox added earlier this week. "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."
Oakland still leads the all-time series 59-43-2 but the Broncos have won two straight, including a 37-6 thumping of the Raiders in Denver back on Sept. 30.
Manning threw for 338 yards and three touchdowns with a 130.0 passer rating in that one, while Willis McGahee, who is currently on injured reserve with a torn medial collateral ligament and compression fracture in his right knee, ran for 112 yards and another TD.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Manning has turned the Broncos' offense into one of the most prolific units in the NFL. Denver has scored at least 30 points in six of the seven games during its current winning streak, the franchise's longest run since it raced out to a 13-0 start in 1998.
Manning, who is second in the NFL in with 29 touchdown passes and a 104.6 passer rating, has only upped his play in recent weeks, tossing 18 TDs versus just six interceptions during the Broncos' current win streak.
Thomas, who has caught four touchdowns over the last three games, has become Manning's Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne in Denver, compiling 69 receptions for 1,114 yards and eight TDs on the season. Eric Decker, who also has eight TD receptions on 56 receptions, tight end Jacob Tamme and veteran slot receiver Brandon Stokley, who is questionable this week with wrist and hip problems, are also significant threats, making Denver a very tough team to match up with even for a solid defense.
"I certainly hope that the timing with all the receivers has improved throughout the year," Manning said. "Experience is your best teacher and I think the more reps you get, especially in games, the better you are going to be."
The Raiders defense has certainly been far from solid and the team has been outscored 189-96 during its five-game hiccup. Overall, Oakland is currently dead last in the NFL in scoring defense (31.3 points per game), 28th against the run (130.4 yards) and 25th against the pass (256.6).
"You're never really ready for Peyton Manning," Oakland defensive coordinator Jason Tarver said. "It's a matter of getting on the same page and having enough coverage looks to hopefully slow down his progression and challenge guys in coverage."
The Raiders should get a boost offensively with the return of running back Darren McFadden, who has missed the previous four games with a sprained ankle.
McFadden, Oakland's most explosive offensive player, was held to 34 yards on 13 carries against the Broncos in September, however, and will be a facing a unit led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Von Miller, who has 15 sacks, five forced fumbles and returned an interception 26 yards for a TD last Sunday.
Conventional wisdom says the home team has a big advantage during a short week but a more empirical evaluation points toward a veteran quarterback in such circumstances.
With Manning running things, Fox and his offensive coordinator Mike McCoy enjoy the luxury of being able to put in a game plan quickly and be comfortable in the fact that Manning will be able to handle what they are asking. While Palmer is also a veteran, he doesn't have the kind weapons manning has at his disposal nor the resume Manning possesses.
"At this point in time in the season, we've established what we want to do from week to week and what our core is in our system," McCoy said. "So, we'll just get back to doing what we do and go out and play. It's going to be more mental than the physical workload that you have in a normal week."
Since Oakland allowed up and down Browns rookie Brandon Weeden to throw for 364 yards while coming off a concussion last Sunday, it's hard to imagine the club shutting down Manning and the Broncos, who still have plenty to play for.
"It's just finishing. It's like the fourth quarter of a game," Fox said of the stretch drive. "It's not real historical how you start, it's historical how you finish. That's where we are right now, in the fourth quarter, we're at the beginning of the fourth quarter and we'll see how it works."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 31, Raiders 20