Broncos Insider - Thursday, Oct. 14

The Broncos have an opportunity to put a lot of distance between themselves and the rest of the AFC West with a win on Sunday at Oakland.The Raiders are in the division race at 2-3, but would be three games behind the Broncos if Denver wins on Sunday.

The Chiefs are not in much better shape, entering this week at 1-3. San Diego is in second place, but it seems hard to believe the Chargers will be atop the division at the end of the season.

The Broncos could be 5-0 had it not been for a last minute fumble at Jacksonville -- although that's balanced out by the good fortune they've received in their four wins -- and are looking like a strong early favorite to win their first division title since 1998.

"We're not playing our best ball I don't think yet, and that's encouraging because we can still pay better," quarterback Jake Plummer said. "We're 4-1 and sitting in a great spot."

A division title would be a big accomplishment for the Broncos. They haven't won the division since John Elway was playing, have never hosted a playoff game at Invesco Field at Mile High and haven't won a playoff game in five seasons.

With a win on Sunday the Broncos would have wins over each of their division rivals, meaning they could do no worse than break even on the first tiebreaker, which is head-to-head wins. The second tiebreaker is divisional record, and the Broncos would be 3-0.

"Obviously any win in the division, you just keep separating there," Plummer said.

Although the Broncos have played very well against the Raiders recently and swept the season series last year, a win in Oakland can't be taken for granted.

The Raiders are 2-0 at home this season and can't afford to fall to 2-4 with a loss on Sunday.

"I imagine if we were 2-3, we'd be desperate too," cornerback Lenny Walls said. "I assume they'll come out and play with a lot of energy."

The Broncos are 6-3 at Oakland in Mike Shanahan's nine years coaching Denver.

SERIES HISTORY -- 88th meeting. Oakland leads the series 52-33-2 in the regular season, and the teams have split two postseason meetings. The Broncos have taken 14 of 18 games since Mike Shanahan took over as Broncos head coach in 1995.

NOTES AND QUOTES

Broncos owner Pat Bowlen and coach Mike Shanahan have always shared a mutual dislike of the Raiders. Shanahan refused to acknowledge his 100th career victory including playoffs last season because eight of those wins came with Raiders.

When the Broncos signed former Buccaneers safety John Lynch this past March, Bowlen couldn't resist getting a dig on the Raiders during the press conference announcing the acquisition.

"I certainly watched the Super Bowl (XXXVII, in which Tampa Bay beat Oakland) with a great deal of interest, with them playing one of my very, very, favorite teams and kicking their butts," Bowlen said.

--The Broncos swept the season series last year. After a 22-8 Broncos win at Oakland last November, Raiders coach Bill Callahan had probably his most well-known rant in his stint as Oakland's coach, saying the Raiders must be "the dumbest team in America."

--Broncos QB Jake Plummer said he will stop wearing a helmet sticker which honors his former teammate Pat Tillman, but the Broncos will have a tribute for Tillman in their stadium. A decal with Tillman's No. 40 will hang in the north end zone by the play clock.

Plummer wore the sticker last week despite the NFL's rules against personal tributes on a player's uniform. The entire league wore the sticker, which had Tillman's No. 40 on it, for Week 2 but only the Arizona Cardinals were allowed to wear it all season.

"I think I don't like the fact that I can't, but I understand what the league is accomplishing with their rules and regulations and trying to keep everything the same," Plummer said.

BY THE NUMBERS
637 -- Rod Smith trails only Marvin Harrison for most receptions in the NFL since 1997. Harrison has 724 catches, Smith is second with 637.

QUOTE TO NOTE
"Hi, Marty Mornhinweg." -- Normally humble RB Reuben Droughns after he rushed for 193 yards against Carolina, addressing the former Lions coach who let him go.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Broncos released wide receiver Adrian Madise this week. That leaves Denver with only three of 10 2003 draft picks on the 53-man roster.

Madise was suspended for four weeks by the NFL for violating the league's policy on banned substances. The Broncos had to make a decision to either activate him or release him on Monday, and they decided they had sufficient depth at receiver and let Madise go.

The Broncos have five receivers on the active roster.

-- DE Patrick Chukwurah has a torn quadriceps muscle, but he hasn't given up hope of playing this week. He will likely miss a week or two with the injury. Chukwurah played a pass-rushing role in the Broncos nickel defense.

-- RB Reuben Droughns could see his playing time on special teams decrease. Droughns was a key contributor on all of Denver's special teams, including his role as the team's primary kickoff returner, but the Broncos might cut back his special teams roles to keep him fresh.

-- TE Patrick Hape could see his role on offense increase as long as Droughns remains at tailback. Hape is a backup fullback and often lined up as an H-back as a lead blocker for Droughns, the team's normal starting fullback, against Carolina.

-- OT George Foster is having a solid beginning to his first season as the starting right tackle. Foster held his own last week against Carolina DE Julius Peppers.

-- TE Jeb Putzier wasn't a big part of Denver's passing game last Sunday, but that doesn't mean he won't be the rest of the season. Putzier will still play in passing situations and should be a big part of the offense based on that week's matchup.

GAME PLAN
The Broncos rediscovered last week what has historically been their calling card, and that's running the ball. Reuben Droughns rushed for almost 200 yards against Carolina, and he should have ample opportunities to run against a Raiders defense that has allowed plenty of rushing yards the past two weeks.

Defensively, the Broncos have had almost no success intercepting passes, but Kerry Collins hasn't had any luck staying away from throwing picks. Collins has thrown six interceptions in his past two games, Denver has only picked off one pass all season, so one of those trends has to change on Sunday. The Broncos could choose to blitz Collins and take their chances in man-to-man coverage against Oakland's young receivers.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Denver interior OL vs. Oakland NT Ted Washington. The Broncos had a poor running performance earlier this season against the Chargers and stout nose tackle Jamal Williams. They face a similar challenge this week against Washington and the Raiders, although Oakland has allowed 100-yard rushers in back-to-back weeks.

Denver WR Rod Smith vs. Oakland CB Charles Woodson. Woodson is one of the best cover corners in the league, but Smith always seems to find a way to get open. If Woodson can limit Smith, the Broncos' other receivers will have to produce some big plays.

INJURY IMPACT
--DE Trevor Pryce (back) is hoping to return to the lineup on Oct. 31 after having back surgery on Sept. 22. He was to be re-evaluated this week.

--CB Willie Middlebrooks (hamstring) is expected to miss four weeks. The Broncos were fortunate that CB Lenny Walls (shoulder) returned to the lineup last week, or they would be thin on secondary depth.

--DE Patrick Chukwurah (quadriceps) did not practice on Wednesday and will probably not practice until Friday, if he does at all this week.

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