By Mark Schiff
At halftime in their second meeting against the Oakland Raiders, the Denver Broncos appeared to be cruising to a ninth-straight win against their AFC West rival. Then the Broncos, and their receivers, dropped the ball.
After leading 12-0 at the break, Denver committed a series of crucial mistakes to surrender 15 unanswered second-half points and lose in immensely frustrating fashion to Oakland on an otherwise beautiful December day at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos second home loss of the season to a division rival was a tale of two halves, as the offense moved the ball smoothly in the opening two quarters before going completely cold in the second half and letting Oakland back in the game.
Here are your team grades from a game in which Denver squandered too much, including the chance to move up to the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
Denver’s red zone offense has had a hard time producing touchdowns all season and it cost them in their 15-12 loss to the Raiders. Brock Osweiler was able to lead four long, methodical first-half drives, but Denver wasn’t able to finish any of them with a touchdown, and those points were the difference.
There’s plenty of blame to spread around for Denver’s struggles on offense in the second half. The running game was utterly inept without C.J. Anderson, forcing Osweiler to throw it far too often (he finished 35/51 for 308 yards, but left some big plays on the field). The offensive line was dominated by Oakland’s pass rush, surrendering five sacks, including a safety in the third quarter. And Demaryius Thomas’ season-long case of the butterfinger flu caught on with all of the receivers, with several drive-ending drops negating would-be first down passes. The poor execution all-around should dispel notions that Osweiler is a panacea for the Broncos problems on offense.
You can’t hang this one on the D. In the first half, the Broncos didn’t allow yards, they took them away, as Oakland’s -12 yards were the lowest total total by a team in a half in almost 25 years. The defense did surrender an 80-yard touchdown drive to open the second half, but Oakland’s other score came courtesy of a turnover that put the ball at the Denver 11. The defense gave up just 126 yards total, which should have been more than enough were it not for the poor play on the other sides of the ball.
Special Teams: D
Denver’s once solid special teams is suddenly turning into a liability. Brandon McManus may have accounted for all the points, but he also missed a kick for the third-straight game, this time a costly 49-yarder that would have tied the game in the fourth quarter.
And the pivotal play may have been Emmanuel Sanders’ fumble deep in Denver territory on a punt return early in fourth quarter, which the Raiders turned into an 11-yard touchdown three plays later. Understandably cautious, Sanders has been mediocre at the position all season. With Omar Bolden injured, even the freshly-signed safety Shiloh Keo was forced into action, resulting in bad field position, a problem all game.
Denver’s mistakes on the field cost them the game, but when the offense is in position to score, the play-calling in the red zone has definitely been questionable and the problems punching it in for touchdowns has to be at least somewhat attributed to coaching.
But how about that sweep to Osweiler on fourth down? Between that and Kubiak’s successful challenge of a Raider’s reception along the sideline, Kubiak showed his in-game management skills remain sturdy, even if the halftime adjustments weren’t.
New England’s win Sunday night knocks the Broncos all the way down the the No. 3 seed, making what should have been a routine home win over the Raiders especially bitter. Denver heads to Pittsburgh for their final road game of the season next week, a tough matchup ahead of what could be a battle for the bye against the Bengals.
Mark Schiff is a freelance writer and music journalist for AXS.com. In 2013, his coverage of the Seattle Seahawks ended in heartbreak when they defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Now covering his beloved hometown team, his knowledge and passion for pro football has resulted in multiple fantasy football championships. Find him on Twitter at @mihilites.