Broncos hope to secure first-round bye

( - The top spot in the conference is out of their reach but the Denver Broncos still want a week off.

The AFC West champions will try to secure a first-round bye in the AFC playoff bracket when they close the regular season against the three-win Oakland Raiders.

The Broncos can earn the bye with a win over Oakland or a Cincinnati loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday night.

Denver's hopes of garnering the top seed in the conference went up in smoke during Week 16 when Jeremy Hill rushed for 147 yards and a touchdown and Dre Kirkpatrick posted two interceptions as the Cincinnati Bengals clinched a playoff spot of their own with a 37-28 win over the Broncos.

Peyton Manning struggled throughout the game and was picked off four times while finishing with 311 yards and two scores on 28-of-44 passing for Denver, which had a four-game win streak come to an end.

C.J. Anderson rushed for 83 yards and a score on 18 carries, Emmanuel Sanders had two scores to go with 70 yards on six catches and Demaryius Thomas finished with seven catches for a game-high 115 yards in defeat.

"We just have to be more consistent for four quarters," Manning said. "You can't play well the end of the second quarter and the beginning of the third quarter - not play well in the first and not play well in the fourth. Against good football teams, you have to be more consistent and I have to play better as well."

New England clinched the first overall seed in the AFC due to Denver's loss.

The Raiders, meanwhile, come in off an exciting 26-24 win over Buffalo in which Derek Carr passed for 214 yards and two touchdowns, and Sebastian Janikowski kicked four field goals for Oakland.

Carr completed 17-of-34 attempts and tossed scores to James Jones and Jamize Olawale for the Raiders, who have a chance to match their win total of the past two seasons if they top the Broncos.

"We wanted to give our fans something special this week. [The fans] have been tremendous," said Raiders head coach Tony Sparano. "That's a great job of fighting when nobody thought you'd come out and fight."

Latavius Murray and Darren McFadden combined for 140 yards on 32 attempts, while Kenbrell Thompkins posted 90 yards on five receptions.

Oakland leads its all-time series with Denver by a 59-47-2 margin but the Broncos have won six straight, including a 41-17 win in Northern California on Nov. 9 when Manning threw for 340 yards and five TDs, two apiece to Julius Thomas and Sanders.


The quarterback is the epicenter in every NFL city, the first player commented on and evaluated, be it positive or negative. And when that signal caller happens to be Manning, any blip, no matter how slight, in a career defined by consistency is going to be overblown.

To be fair to those currently questioning Manning, he is obviously far closer to the end of his brilliant career than the beginning with a medical record that includes four neck surgeries so it's not exactly out of bounds to be on the lookout for what is the inevitable decline for every player.

Manning has looked mortal in recent weeks, almost like an actual 38-year-old man with Monday's four-interception implosion in Cincinnati serving as the main course for the haters.

"The sky is not falling," Broncos coach John Fox said. "We're not getting ready to get rid of our quarterback. He's fine and, we're all going to get better."

Fine is a relative term in the NFL.

The setback against the Bengals was Manning's first quadruple INT game since 2010 and helped assure that the road to AFC championship would go through Foxbrorough and not the Rocky Mountains, a potential death blow when it comes to the fairytale ending of Manning walking off stage left with the Lombardi Trophy.

"We have to find a way to learn from this," a dejected Manning said.

All four of Denver's losses have come on the road this season and 11 of Manning's 15 interceptions have come away from Mile High. Meanwhile, six of those 11 picks came at the hands of the Bengals and Patriots, two teams the Broncos may have to beat if they plan on being in Glendale come February.

Denver personnel chief John Elway overhauled his defense following the Super Bowl XLVIII collapse against Seattle last season and bringing in players like DeMarcus Ware, Aquib Talib and T.J. Ward has certainly helped on that side of the ball as evidenced by Denver's current standing as the third-ranked stop unit in all of football.

What Elway didn't address, however, was the offensive line, the team's real Achilles' heel against both the Seahawks and Cincinnati on Monday night.

"We gave up two sacks and we lead the whole National Football League in sacks per pass (play)," Fox said when discussing his much-maligned OL on Tuesday. "We did not coach well enough and we did not play well enough. They had a better night than we did."

The thought in Denver was the return of star left tackle Ryan Clady, who missed most of the '13 campaign with a Lisfranc injury would be enough. The plan was for Chris Clark, who replaced Clady at LT last season, to bump over to the right side with Orlando Franklin moving inside to left guard opposite solid right guard Louis Vasquez.

And if the '12 version of Clady, who allowed just one sack the entire season, showed up this time around all of that might have worked but the former All- Pro has been average at best this season despite the reputation-generated Pro Bowl nod he received on Tuesday night.

The '14 Clady has been playing at a level nowhere near the AFC's best left tackles -- Cleveland's Joe Thomas and the Bengals' Andrew Whitworth -- and one high-profile, scouting-based website has him rated as the 45th best tackle in the NFL.

Clark, meanwhile, couldn't carry his own water at right tackle before being replaced by Paul Cornick, who also faltered, leaving the Broncos to make wholesale changes, kicking Vasquez outside, moving Manny Ramirez from center to right guard and inserting veteran pivot Will Montgomery.

The lack of consistency has hurt but the bigger issue has been the athleticism or lack thereof, as the Denver O-Line has trouble getting to the second level in the running game, and Vasquez struggles mightily against speed on the outside as evidenced by Carlos Dunlap's big game on Monday night.

No one covers for a mediocre offense line better than Manning, a signal caller who possesses a lightning-quick release as well as a football IQ that is off the charts.

Manning can and does vary his snap count better than just about any other QB who has ever played the game but eventually a defense is going to get its chances against a stationary target and the lack of consistent pass protection has left Manning a battered and bruised mess with the playoffs looming.

Perhaps no team ticketed for the postseason needs a first-round bye more than the Broncos and they can lock that up with a Week 17 win as a two-touchdown favorite over Oakland.

A rested and relatively healthy Manning is the difference between a deep playoff run and one-and-done.

"I learned a long time ago it doesn't matter how you start the race it's how you finish," said Fox. "We'll step back from (Monday night), we'll learn from it, we'll analyze and decipher went wrong and hopefully get it fixed."

For the Raiders, Carr leads all rookies in both passing yards (3,112) and touchdowns (20), and has probably been the second best freshman signal caller this season behind Minnesota's Teddy Bridgewater.

Carr, though, has been well below average in the road, compiling a less-than- stellar 69.8 passer rating which has contributed to Oakland's 0-7 record away from the Bay Area.

"We've got to learn how to take what we do (at home) and go on the road and do it," Carr said. "We need to learn how to do that and it's something that we are learning to do. But it just hasn't happened yet. Eventually we'll get it right."


Carr and the Raiders may eventually get it but not this week. Denver has a significant talent advantage on both sides of the football and plenty to play for.

"The reality is we're going to get an opportunity to compete for the Lombardi Trophy," Fox said. "We're in the playoffs."

Sports Network predicted outcome: Broncos 30, Raiders 13