Three Keys to Broncos-Raiders

It's easy to focus on what the Broncos have lost in recent weeks, particularly as any hope of a postseason berth evaporated as a result of consecutive losses to the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns after a three-game winning streak. They've lost games. They've lost more players to injuries, as season-ending injuries to Chris Harris Jr. and Emmanuel Sanders pushed their injured-reserve list to double digits.

But if the Broncos are to finish with back-to-back wins that allow them to avoid their first consecutive losing seasons since Watergate, they will do so based on what they still possess: cohesion and togetherness.

Building that took time and some changes -- including a simple switch in the locker room that saw offensive, defensive and special-teams players shuffled and spread out, instead of being clustered together in position groups. 

"Everybody's trying to buy into the family tradition that's trying to be set forth here in the locker room, and it has been set," safety Will Parks said. "[Head Coach Vance Joseph] did a wonderful job as far as switching up the lockers. Like, I sit next to Jeff Heuerman and Kevin Hogan. Now, I love Kevin Hogan. [But] I probably wouldn't have talked to him if he didn't make that move. But I talk to everybody, so I probably would have." 

Parks smiled as he glanced at Hogan, who grinned as he sat nearby, listening to the conversation. Such warmth between teammates from different backgrounds, working on different sides of the ball, is one of the hallmarks of this year's team.

"It's all for the better, man," Parks said. "I think the morale in here has never changed with the ups and downs in the season. The biggest thing that we have going on now -- and the greatest thing that we have going on now -- is that we have another game."

It's another game for the players to show what they can do. It's a chance to avoid a losing season. If the Broncos can go 5-2 in their seven games after the bye, they have a platform from which they can launch themselves to better days.

"Man, it's a big platform," Parks said. "I look at it like basketball. That guy who didn't have nothing in the first three quarters, and then in the fourth quarter, he comes out with 20. In the next game, he's going to [score] 30. Then the next game, 40. That's kind of how I'm looking at it." 

And it's a chance to change the narrative about the team that exists outside of the locker room.

"Just keep it in perspective -- from the outside looking in, people are going to say, 'Oh, they're not that good; they need a complete overhaul,'" inside linebacker Brandon Marshall said. "But from the inside looking out, I don't believe that at all." 

What are the keys to winning Monday night?

1. Contain Jared Cook

Among NFL tight ends, only Kansas City's Travis Kelce has more 100-yard receiving games this season than Cook, who hit the triple-digit milestone in two of the Raiders' first three December games, with 100 yards against the Chiefs on Dec. 2 and 116 yards against the Steelers a week later.

Furthermore, when Cook notched at least 70 receiving yards this season, Oakland's offense has averaged 27.2 points per game. When he failed to hit that mark, Oakland's average plummets to 13.0 points per game.

Defending Cook will be a collaborative effort. 

"I was watching him against the Steelers and they line him up everywhere, man. And he was catching balls on safeties, linebackers -- it didn't really matter," Marshall said. "He's a mismatch -- 6-foot-5, runs a 4.5 [40-yard dash], really good player. So everybody has to be on their P’s and Q’s, play with good technique, and be confident and just be on the body."

2. Play to your strengths

Oakland will almost certainly make use of eight-in-the-box defensive alignments to counter Denver's ground game, just like the 49ers and Browns did in the previous two games in the wake of Emmanuel Sanders' season-ending Achilles-tendon injury. 

But the Raiders also lurch into this game with the league's worst run defense in terms of yardage allowed, yielding 146.4 rushing yards per game -- 20.3 more yards than the Browns and 34.3 more yards than the 49ers.

3. Start fast

Oakland's minus-68 point margin in the first half is the league's third-worst, only ahead over the Buffalo Bills (minus-86) and the Arizona Cardinals (minus-111). But most of the Raiders' limited success has come when they burst in front after the first quarter; they are 2-2 when they lead by at least four points after the first quarter, and 1-9 when they lead by three or fewer points, are tied or trail after the first 15 minutes.

"Jon Gruden's first 15 plays are really good," Marshall said. "We'll know how they want to attack us early."

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