The Denver Broncos have been playing without their best pass rusher, their best cornerback and, now, they'll be missing their best offensive lineman.
A season in crisis?
Such is life with Peyton Manning under center.
Manning is the first quarterback in NFL history to open the season with nine touchdown passes and no interceptions and the Broncos (2-0) have averaged 45 points in their first two games. They lost left tackle Ryan Clady to a foot injury this week and have been without linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Champ Bailey, though Bailey returned to practice and could see some action Monday night against the Raiders.
The general consensus about all these Denver injuries: What difference does it make?
"The best part about this team is having depth," Broncos receiver Eric Decker said. "I think we do have a lot of guys that can fill a position."
Taking Clady's spot in the lineup will be fifth-year lineman Chris Clark, who played the role of Manning's blindside protector through much of offseason practice while Clady was overcoming a shoulder injury.
The Raiders are tied for the league lead in sacks, with nine over the first two games, and will try to expose a Denver offensive line that shuffled around even before Clady's injury but has shown no signs of trouble so far.
"Being around him, even for the short time I was in Denver, I know they have all the confidence in the world that the man can go in there and do the job," said Raiders coach Dennis Allen, who was Denver's defensive coordinator for a season before taking the Oakland job.
Despite the latest injury, the Broncos are 15-point favorites for the game against their AFC West rivals, the biggest spread of the NFL season so far.
The Raiders (1-1), pegged as one of the league's worst teams, have fared a bit better than that, taking a lead against the Colts in the fourth quarter of the opener before falling, then beating one of the league's other worst teams, the Jacksonville Jaguars, at home last week.
Now, the biggest test. A victory would put them in a tie with the Broncos and hand them their first regular-season loss in 14 games.
Five things to watch when the Raiders and Broncos meet:
PROTECTING THE FRANCHISE: Defensive backs have accounted for five of Oakland's nine sacks this season, meaning the Raiders aren't shy about bringing the blitz and mixing things up. Certainly, they'll try to confuse Clark, who will be making his first career start at left tackle. But Manning gets the ball out so quickly, it may be hard to get to him around the edges. A more subtle impact will be what the Broncos lose, protection-wise, in their attempts to help Clark handle Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston and others who might come around the left side. They used to let Clady deal with his man by himself. Clark likely will need help.
LEGIT OR NOT: The Raiders were almost universally pegged as either the worst or second-worst team in the league coming into the season. Their 19-9 win last week over Jacksonville certainly gets them out of the cellar. They've even moved up to a tie for 29th in the latest AP Pro32 power rankings, tied with Tampa Bay and ahead of Cleveland. Now comes the biggest test: A road game against Manning and the defending division champions. Last season, Denver outscored the Raiders 63-19 in their two meetings.
RUNNING AND STOPPING THE RUN: Denver's run defense ranks first in the league, in part because opponents have been forced to abandon the ground game after falling so far behind. The Raiders run offense ranks first in the league, mainly because Terrelle Pryor has 162 yards rushing — best among all quarterbacks — and running back Darren McFadden has an AFC-best 223 yards from scrimmage, including 177 on the ground.
FORTY'S THE NEW THIRTY: According to STATS Inc., the Broncos could become the seventh team since 1990 to score 40 or more points in three consecutive games. Among those they would join: The 2000 St. Louis Rams, who became the first team to score more than 500 points in a season, along with the 2004 Indianapolis Colts, quarterbacked by you know who.
PEYTON VS. D-BACKS: In the offseason, free-agent safety Charles Woodson made a visit to Denver, but ended up signing with Oakland, where he started his career. Oakland also signed cornerback Tracy Porter, whose one-year stay in Denver last season was a bust, filled with injuries and illness and only six games played. Will be interesting to see if Manning goes after Porter in this game.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL
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