ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —** Recent history depicts Broncos vs. Raiders as a rivalry in decline. The Broncos and Raiders, who once did battle as AFC heavyweights fighting for AFC West supremacy in the days of Craig Morton and Ken Stabler, have been separated by an average of about 21 points over the past seven divisional clashes, a streak of seven Broncos wins.
But with the framework in place to build a strong team for years to come with talented players at key positions, the Raiders are in good shape to return a dormant rivalry to its halcyon days.
Take a photographic trip through the series history between the Broncos and the Raiders.
It starts largely with the promising young players they drafted in 2014 in the first two rounds, with defensive end Khalil Mack at fifth overall and quarterback Derek Carr at 35th overall. The two players are foundational components of their roster in 2015 and beyond and they've given the Raiders a strong sense of direction in building for the future.
Oakland still struggled in 2014, stumbling to a 0-10 start before winning three of its final six games. In the offseason, the team overhauled the coaching staff and added key contributors in multiple facets, especially at wide receiver.
Carr now has better weapons to aid him in the passing game, with first-round pick Amari Cooper and free-agent acquisition Michael Crabtree lining up in the silver and black. With an offensive line that has been one of the league's best in holding off pressure in pass protection in consecutive seasons, Carr now has the time and dangerous receivers to make the Raiders' offense more effective.
"[He's improved] a lot," cornerback Aqib Talib said. "He just looks more comfortable. You can see his maturity, he gets the ball out of his hands and he's running their show. The offense looks pretty decent, and Carr is the one running it. You can definitely see the maturity from last year."
A year after ranking dead last in number of passing plays that went for 20 or more yards, the Raiders are currently 15th in the league with 12, just about double what they had through four weeks last year. The investment in the passing game is paying dividends for the Raiders, but they'll face their toughest challenge yet against the league leaders in passing defense.
On the other side, the Raiders have built a defensive front that prides itself on pressure. Khalil Mack is a disruptive dynamo and Justin Tuck is no slouch on the other side, either. Oakland also rolled the dice on defensive end Aldon Smith, who has had off-field troubles going back to 2012.
And then there's Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio, who has helped restore some sheen to the Raiders aura.
"We had a lot of work to do," Del Rio said. "We just basically got here, got staff in order and started attacking this thing."
One of the aspects in which Del Rio has helped the Raiders is Carr's development. The two watch film together every week and Del Rio's defensive background gives Carr another perspective to consider.
"That's kind of where he's been huge in my growth," Carr said. "He'll show me clips and say, 'No, this is the situation. This is the personnel that they are in. This is why they're doing it. This is the front. This is the stuff they're doing and this is why.' My football knowledge has grown from learning from him and learning from, really, [Quarterbacks] Coach [Todd] Downing and [Offensive Coordinator] Coach [Bill] Musgrave and the knowledge that they've brought in for me, as well."
With all the changes and development, the Raiders are a more dangerous team than what the Broncos have seen in recent years from Oakland. The rivalry renews itself twice every year, but Sunday's matchup could be more competitive than what's been seen in the previous three years.
"I think every year's a new year and they've been playing well and we've got a tough challenge going into their place, so I expect a great football game," Kubiak said. "We know it's a tough place to play.