There was a large, figurative stage set up by the AFC West at the halfway mark of the season.
The stage had the bright lights of national television (NBC). It featured the consequence of win and you’re in first; lose and you’re in third. It had a loud, excited crowd dressed in all its bizarre Raider regalia. It featured the once-woebegone but now up-and-coming Oakland Raiders against the five-time defending division champion Denver Broncos.
On a pleasant, early November evening not far from The Bay, the Raiders came up with arguably their most significant victory in 14 years by thumping the Broncos, 30-20, here Sunday at the nuttier-than-usual Black Hole inside the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
"You don't ever want to have one of those,'' said Broncos coach Gary Kubiak. "We didn't lose a championship or anything tonight. There's a lot of football left to play, but we have to play a hell of a lot better when we play.''
Led by running back Latavius Murray who had 114 yards rushing and three, 1-yard touchdowns, it’s the Raiders who now lead the AFC West with a 7-2 record. The Broncos, who surrendered 221 yards rushing and committed two turnovers, fell to third place with their 6-3 mark, as they also slipped behind the Kansas City Chiefs, who are 6-2.
PHOTOS: Denver Broncos at Oakland Raiders
The Broncos must now figure out how to beat the high-powered New Orleans Saints at the Superdome next week if they want to avoid entering their bye week with a 6-4 record.
Without star cornerback Aqib Talib, the Broncos are not the same defense, and therefore, not nearly the same team. Talib missed his second consecutive game because of a disc issue in his lower back. Talib is expected to also miss the Broncos’ next game at New Orleans. With the bye week following, Talib would get four weeks to heal with hope he can return to play against Kansas City on Nov. 27.
If the defending Super Bowl champs are suddenly in trouble, it’s because we learned Sunday night that experience is sometimes overrated in sports.
The Broncos play big games under the lights five or six times a year in the regular season, and then one to three more in the playoffs in recent time. The Raiders haven’t had a winning record since 2002. Yet, for this AFC West first-place showdown on NBC’s Sunday Night Football, it was the Broncos who came out stricken by stage fright while the Raiders – coached by former Broncos’ defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio – who floated along with the emotionally charged atmosphere.
"Raider Nation showed up,'' Del Rio said. 'I'm so pleased to deliver the kind of performance they deserve. We gave them a great performance.''
The Broncos fell behind 13-0 early in the second quarter, 20-7 late in the first half and 23-13 early in the fourth quarter. They rallied to make it somewhat of a game behind quarterback Trevor Siemian, kicker Brandon McManus, who converted field goals from 55 and 44 yards, and a spectacular, 69-yard, cross-field touchdown catch-and-run by backup tailback Kapri Bibbs with 5:18 remaining.
Siemian completed 18 of 37 for 283 yards and two touchdowns, but he also lost a fumble and threw a game-clinching interception on fourth down near the 2-minute warning.
Siemian could have used more help, especially from the Broncos’ running game that continues to struggle in the absence of running back C.J. Anderson. Against a Raiders’ defense that came in ranked 28th against the run, the Broncos had just 33 yards rushing. Rookie tailback Devontae Booker had a mere 22 yards on 11 carries, the type of performance that had the Broncos’ coaching staff turning to Bibbs late in the game.
Bibbs, a one-year star at Colorado State and two-year practice-squad player for the Broncos, came through with the type of spectacular touchdown play that was reminiscent of what Anderson pulled off on the same field here two years ago. With the Broncos down 30-13, Siemian flipped a simple screen pass to Bibbs on the left side of scrimmage. Bibbs wound up cutting into right to the open field, before making one more cut left for a dive into the end zone.
"It would have been awesome to have that kind of play in victory,'' Bibbs said.
"He deserves a shot,'' Kubiak said. "Kid's been working his tail off, doing some good stuff. We want to give him opportunities. Makes a hell of a play and then I look up and he jumps out there to cover the kick. That's the kind of players you need on your team, so I'm proud of him. He deserves some more (opportunities).''
The Broncos had plenty of time to draw closer but their defense again failed to stop the run.
"That's definitely not the mark of a great defense,'' said Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall."We can't just get ran all over. Yeah, they only had (184) yards passing but to have 200 yards rushing, that's awful.''
Siemian, the Broncos newly minted captain, got his team going in the second quarter by completing a 23-yard pass to an adjusting Demaryius Thomas down the left sideline. It was the Broncos’ first, first down of the game.
Four plays later, Siemian rolled right – directly into the face of a pass rush -- and calmly delivered a 36-yard strike to slot receiver Jordan Norwood for a touchdown. That narrowed the score to 13-7.
But the Raiders quickly marched 75 yards for a touchdown with 1:25 left in the half thanks to a 42-yard run by tailback Latavius Murray and a 23-yard pass interference call on Bradley Roby on a third-and-10 play. Instead of incomplete, fourth down on a Carr pass that was wild because of pressure applied by Broncos’ linebacker DeMarcus Ware, the Roby penalty gave the Raiders first-and-goal at the 1.
Murray eventually scored on his second, 1-yard touchdown.
Roby was having a tough night in hjis second game replacing the injured Talib. Roby was the AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his pick six effort against San Diego last week but in this game he missed two tackles that led to long gains and had the P.I. that eventually gave the Raiders a touchdown.
Entering the game, the Broncos’ offense had failed to generate a first down on 40 percent of its drives, the highest rate in the NFL. It then went three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out on its only three drives in the first quarter.
Siemian started 0 for 6. He did have two first-down completions dropped by new tight end A.J. Derby and old tight end Virgil Green.
The Broncos’ first drive of the second quarter? Three and out. It was the most dismal display of Broncos’ offense in recent memory.
"It's tough being in a hole like that,'' Siemian said. "Four, three-and-outs -- that's not good for the whole football team. Certainly I'll find a way to find a rhythm earlier on in the ballgame.''
The Denver defense put up some fight, although poor starting defensive field position meant it would eventually break against the Raiders’ Derek Carr.
This is a quarterback living up to his press clippings. Far more composed, accurate and confident than he was against the Broncos during his first two seasons, Carr started his third season against the Broncos completing 19 of 30 for 175 yards. He led his team to a 13-0 lead early in the second quarter with scores off each of his first three possessions.
The Raiders started their three series at their own 48, their own 42 and own 43. That’s not far to go. The first two drives ended in short Sebastian Janikowski field goals, who at that point became the ninth kicker in NFL history to make 400 in his career.
The Raiders finally broke the Denver D when Murray was given a touchdown on a 1-yard leap.
But as happens with so many Bronco contests since Gary Kubiak became their head coach last season, they bounced back. Siemian found his touch. Janikowski missed a field goal for the 101st time of his career.
With 22 seconds left in the first half, it appeared Siemian had thrown a beautiful 44-yard touchdown pass to receiver Emmanuel Sanders. But the leaping Sanders had the ball slide through his arms as he falling to the ground. The Broncos settled for the McManus’ first field goal beyond 50 yards this season.
In the second half, the Raiders had the Broncos’ offense pinned back to its 2-yard and 1-yard line to start its first two drives. Siemian was sacked twice by Khalil Mack, fumbling the second time for a turnover that led to the Raiders’ final touchdown – Murray’s third, 1-yard scoring run of the game.