After years of lopsided results in Denver's favor, the rivalry between the Broncos and the Oakland Raiders appears to be heating up again.
Both teams are 6-2 and tied atop the AFC West heading into Sunday's matchup in Oakland, the 111th meeting between the division rivals. Denver has regularly gotten the better of the Raiders in recent years, winning eight of the last nine since 2011, and the Broncos are 26-7 overall in divisional play over the last five years, the best winning percentage against divisional foes in the NFL in that span.
But the Raiders have served notice that they are a different team this season, with quarterback Derek Carr leading a dynamic offense that is averaging 401.6 yards per game, ranked fifth in the league. In last week's overtime win over Tampa Bay, Carr became the third player in NFL history to throw for at least 500 yards passing (513), four touchdowns and zero interceptions in a game.
"He's playing at a really high level," Broncos linebacker Shane Ray said. "With all the talk that's been going around the league, with how he's been playing and his number of pass attempts through the game, he's a quarterback that you definitely have to have pressure on or he'll pick you apart. They've been a really good balanced team as far as running the ball and passing the ball. Derek Carr is definitely making an impression on the league right now."
Carr has helped turn Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree into one of the most feared receiving tandems in the league. Cooper had 12 catches for 173 yards, both career highs, against Tampa Bay and Crabtree has six touchdown catches, tied for the league lead.
"He's doing some good things this year," Broncos safety T.J. Ward said of Carr. "He seems to have a handle of the entire offense and his receivers are catching some great passes from him. They're clicking right now."
The upward trajectory for the Raiders, who would match their win total from last season with a victory Sunday, has coincided with the arrival two years ago of coach Jack Del Rio, who was the Broncos' defensive coordinator before going to Oakland.
"We're obviously still learning," Carr said "Where we're at? I'm not sure, but we're in a good spot. We're heading the right way, but we still have a way to go as a football team."
Del Rio said he senses something of a culture change among the Raiders.
"I think we've changed the mentality here in this building. That's part of it," Del Rio said. "Last year, we learned how to compete and this year we're learning how to close plays, how to make the plays that need to be made to win."
The Raiders and their high flying offense face a severe test against a Broncos defense that already has shown its mettle against some of the best quarterbacks in the league, beating such stalwarts as Carolina's Cam Newton, Indianapolis' Andrew Luck and San Diego's Philip Rivers, against whom the Broncos had three interceptions last week, including one that cornerback Bradley Roby returned 49 yards for a touchdown.
Denver leads the NFL in sacks with 26, and Super Bowl MVP Von Miller ranks second in the NFL with 8.5 sacks. In addition, no team in the league has scored more points off turnovers (80) than the Broncos.
Carr said he considers Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib, who is expected back Sunday after missing last week's game with a back injury, the best cornerback tandem in the league.
"To have them on the same team, it's ridiculous," Carr said. "I think the world of them. When you study them, they're very tight cover guys that are very smart. You can tell that they study. You can definitely tell that they know where their help is. They know how to communicate in the secondary, so I think they're some of the best, not only in this league, but that we've ever seen together."
The Broncos, meanwhile, are hoping to get more production out of their offense, which has struggled to achieve balance this season between the pass and the run, most especially since the loss of running back C.J. Anderson to a knee injury.
"There's conversation all of the time about how are we balanced-wise? What is going on here?" Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. "Like last week, you know you're out of whack. You have to go out there and make plays to win games. The key to balance is you have to run plays. We had fifty-something plays last week and we have to find a way to be more balanced as a group. You also have to do what the defense is telling you to do, too. It's a commitment and one that you have to hang on to, but at the same time, you have to stay aggressive in this league. You have to make plays."
The Broncos have had injury issues in their backfield. Beyond Anderson, his replacement, rookie Devontae Booker, had some limitations in practice this week because of a shoulder injury suffered in last Sunday's win over San Diego.
Denver cornerback Kayvon Webster also had some practice restrictions because of a hamstring injury.
Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall could return this week from a hamstring issue after missing the San Deigo game, though he remains questionable.
Raiders defensive tackle Stacy McGee (ankle) also has missed practice time this week after missing ast week's game against Tampa Bay.
Cornerback Sean Smith suffered a shoulder injury against Tampa Bay and has been limited in practice.