TURNING IT AROUND
When the Broncos and Raiders met in Week 10 in Oakland, Tony Sparano had been interim head coach for four games and the team held an 0-9 record. Though they held a 10-6 lead against the Broncos into the second quarter, the Raiders fell 41-17 that day and lost the next week to San Diego before breaking their winless streak in Week 12 against the Chiefs.
That Thursday-night victory over Kansas City marked the beginning of an uptick by the Raiders, who have now won three of their last five games.
"I think that's the biggest difference that we continue to stay together and trust in each other and continue to work really hard to change the culture that's been around here for a while," Carr said of the recent turnaround. "…Things haven't gone well here in a long time so this team wants to be the start of something new.
"This team is definitely different, definitely doing some new things and we're definitely starting to head in the right direction and that's all a part of it."
Each of the team's three victories have come over teams that have at least seven wins on the year, and all three have also been at home. While Sparano is encouraged by the progress, he sees this weekend as a good opportunity for the team to take another step.
"They have won three out of five games and won three games at home, OK, [we've] done things like that," Sparano said. "We've beaten some good football teams so we're getting ready to play a good football team this week and do it on the road."
CARR SHIFTING GEARS MENTALLY**
In a league where teams are so dependent on quarterbacks, it's no surprise that Carr's development during his rookie season has been a primary factor in the team's progress. In the team's three wins, he's had a QB rating of 75 or better in each – something he failed to do in seven of the other 12 games this season – and posted a career-best 140.2 against the 49ers in Week 13.
Carr said he's "absolutely" light years ahead of where he was in Week 1.
"There's no doubt that first game against the Jets to where I'm at now mentally, physically, just being able to go out and do certain things, definitely," he said. "I'm definitely ahead of where I was."
He credited the opportunity to start from Week 1 as an important part of his learning experience, and says he's made his biggest progress in adapting to the NFL's faster pace.
"For me it's getting used to all the different pressures, all the different coverages that teams can play," he said. "Just the speed of the game is unlike anything else. It's not even close to college. College, you play against some fast guys and all those things but the NFL is light years ahead of anything you'll ever see in college."
Sparano agreed, noting that Carr's understanding of opposing pass rushes has been crucial.
"I think the greatest [improvement] is his knowledge of protection, what he sees out there at the line of scrimmage, and the way he can group protection and coverages together," Sparano said. "That has probably been the biggest improvement that I've seen him make right now."
Combined with a quick release, Carr's growing ability to recognize a defense's rush makes him difficult to sack, as he's been taken down for a loss just 25 times, sixth best in the league. Back in Week 10, the Raiders held the Broncos without a sack entirely, the first such occurrence all season.
Carr's protection and lack of sacks against is a stark contrast between he and his older brother, David, who was sacked an NFL record 76 times in 2002 as a rookie with the Texans.
"I've been hit a lot less, that's for sure," Carr said of the differences between the brothers' rookie seasons. "I think that stands out to our family the most. Our offensive line has done a great job this year. I took those guys out to eat and they deserved every bit of it and hanging out with those guys, they're awesome.
"I'd definitely say that compared to that year, the offensive line would probably have to be the biggest difference."
Derek says he's leaned on his older brother, who retired after the 2011 season, at times during his rookie seasons, asking questions and taking advice.
"He's always there for me but he kind of just sits back and watches, kind of lets me do my own thing," Carr said. "If he ever has something to say he tells me — because I know if we were to talk all the time about football and certain things than it would just be repetitive. But when he tells me something, I know that it actually really, really means something.
"For him to kind of take a step back and just let me learn on my own and learn on the fly has been awesome. But at the same time, I ask him questions and he's always there to help and tell me things he went through that helped him out."
Peyton Manning broke down the huddle at Wednesday's practice, where the Broncos went in hats and no pads on a sunny Christmas Eve.