On paper, a matchup between the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders has mismatch written all over it. Fortunately, that is why they don't play the games on paper, because you never know what can happen when two bitter division rivals square off in primetime.
The AFC West has belonged to the Broncos all season, and they wrapped up the division by virtue of their victory over Tampa Bay last weekend. Despite already being in the playoffs, the Broncos are in a dogfight with New England and Baltimore for the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
The Raiders have fallen fast and hard this season. They were a respectable 3-4 after seven games, but five straight losses have moved them to the bottom of the standings in the AFC.
Still, with two teams so familiar with each other playing on a short week, who knows what can happen?
Here are the matchups we will be watching for when the Broncos and Raiders square off on Thursday night.
Peyton Manning vs. Raiders Secondary
When these two teams met back in September, Manning played the best game of his brief Denver career. He went 30-of-38 with 338 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. It was the first time he really looked comfortable in his new surroundings.
Of course, that was just the start of what Manning would do. He enters this game with 3,502 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, nine interceptions, a completion percentage of 68 and is the front-runner for the MVP award.
In stark contrast to Manning's success, the Raiders have been dreadful defending the pass in 2012. They have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 66 percent of their passes for 3,079 yards, 24 touchdowns and just eight interceptions.
It also doesn't help matters that the Raiders are 31st in the NFL with just 14 sacks. If you have a bad secondary and no pass rush to attack Manning, you are going to get burned 10 times out of 10.
Carson Palmer vs. Broncos Defensive Line
Since the Raiders are not likely to keep Manning in check on defense, they will need to put up a lot of points if they want to keep this game close.
Carson Palmer still has issues with turnovers—his 13 interceptions thrown are tied for sixth-most in the NFL, and he has thrown at least one in 10 of 12 games—but he is finding the end zone with more regularity and is completing a respectable 61 percent of his passes.
One of the games in which Palmer didn't have an interception came against Denver in Week 4. He went 19-of-34 with 202 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions in a 37-6 loss. He was sacked three times in that game.
Lost in the shuffle of how great Manning has been is the Broncos' defense. They rank in the Top 10 against the run and pass, points allowed, sacks and interceptions.
All of that success starts up front, particularly with Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. That duo has 23 sacks and 11 forced fumbles already this season.
If Palmer wants to have success in this game, he has to avoid Miller and Dumervil, no matter what it takes. If that means shifting the game plan to incorporate more short drops and quick passes, so be it.
That kind of west-coast style isn't usually something the Raiders are comfortable with, but it is their best course of action in this game.
Broncos Running Game vs. Raiders Defensive Line
If there is one weakness the Broncos have right now, it is running the ball. They are 22nd in the league in rushing yards, 23rd in average yards per attempt (3.8) and tied for 25th with six rushing touchdowns.
Given how good the passing game has been, not to mention Manning's ability to use short passes as a variation on the running game, the Broncos don't need to be great on the ground, but it would be good to see them at least look respectable in that phase of the game.
The Raiders could be the perfect opponent to get Knowshon Moreno going, as they rank 27th in yards per attempt, 28th in rushing yards allowed and tied for 30th in touchdowns.
Nothing the Raiders have done on the defensive line has worked this season. They get overpowered and are too often out of position to make plays. If ever there was a game for the Broncos to cut the running game loose, it would be this one.
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