Led by their resurgent superstar quarterback, the Denver Broncos have plenty to play for over the next four weeks even though they’ve already clinched the AFC West title.
The Oakland Raiders, meanwhile, are searching for any signs of progress amid their 10th straight season without a playoff appearance.
In the midst of their longest winning streak in 14 years, the visiting Broncos look for an eighth consecutive victory while trying to hand the Raiders a sixth straight defeat Thursday night.
A year ago, Peyton Manning was recovering from neck surgery and wondering where or if his NFL career would continue. The future Hall of Famer seems to have made the right choice in Denver, where he’s again competing at an elite level while helping the Broncos (9-3) to their second straight division title.
Second in the NFL in completion percentage (68.0), touchdown passes (29) and passer rating (104.6), Manning went 27 of 38 for 242 yards with three TDs and an interception Sunday to help Denver secure the West crown with a 31-23 win over Tampa Bay.
"It’s one step," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "It’s not like we’ve done everything we want to do."
The Broncos also have their sights set on going undefeated in the division and getting a first-round bye in the playoffs. They’re tied with New England and Baltimore for the No. 2 seed in the AFC, but are currently fourth based on tiebreakers with those teams.
"We always say people remember what you do in December," coach John Fox told the Broncos’ official website. "So that’s what we have ahead of us. We’ve got a division game coming up. Hopefully, we get to 5-0 in the division. There’s a lot to play for. We’ll see where that leads us."
Denver has scored at least 30 points in six of the seven games during the team’s longest string of victories since starting 13-0 in 1998. Manning has thrown 18 TDs and six INTs while posting a 107.5 rating during the streak, and Demaryius Thomas has caught four of those touchdowns over the last three games – two against the Buccaneers.
"I feel like we’ve scratched the surface of the team we know we can be," said linebacker Von Miller, who had his 15th sack and his fifth forced fumble while also returning an interception 26 yards for a score Sunday. "We’ve just got to keep on going to be that team that we all know we’re capable of being."
The Broncos have a good chance to continue their success with a third straight win over the lowly Raiders (3-9), who have already been eliminated from playoff contention. Denver has won seven of nine at Oakland, where the Raiders will be trying to avoid their first four-game home skid since 2008.
Manning was 30 of 38 for 338 yards with three TDs and Thomas caught five passes for 103 yards in Denver’s 37-6 win over Oakland on Sept. 30. The Broncos totaled 503 yards while limiting the Raiders to 237.
The Raiders, who’ve been outscored 189-96 in their last five games, must find a better way to slow down Manning.
"You’re never really ready for Peyton Manning," Oakland defensive coordinator Jason Tarver said. "It’s a matter of getting on the same page and having enough coverage looks to hopefully slow down his progression and challenge guys in coverage, that’s what we need to do."
Oakland, which has not lost six in a row since 2007, allowed Cleveland rookie Brandon Weeden to throw for 364 yards in Sunday’s 20-17 home loss to the Browns. It has also yielded 494 rushing yards over the last three contests.
The Raiders rank last in the NFL in scoring defense (31.3 points per game), 28th against the run (130.4 yards) and 25th against the pass (256.6).
"Week in and week out, it’s like it’s the same: can’t stop the run, can’t stop the pass," cornerback Michael Huff said. "Things just aren’t going well on defense. Right now, I guess we’re just a bad defense. We can’t really hide it."
The Raiders have not been much better offensively, totaling 44 points the last three weeks. However, they are expected to have running back Darren McFadden back after he missed the last four games with a sprained ankle. McFadden was held to 34 yards on 13 carries against the Broncos in September after averaging 144.7 in his previous three games versus Denver.
Carson Palmer has thrown five touchdowns and seven interceptions while posting a 69.3 passer rating during a personal four-game skid against the Broncos.
Raiders coach and former Denver defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has rejoined the team and will be on the sidelines Thursday after his father, former NFL linebacker Grady Allen, died earlier this week at age 66.