Denver are on their longest winning streak in 14 years, but Romilly Evans says Oakland can stay within the handicap...
As neatly showcased by the respective records of 9-3 - 3-9, the Denver Broncos and the Oakland Raiders are heading on divergent paths of form and symmetry. And tonight's tussle should only extend that sequence, with Denver lavish 10-point favourites despite being on the road.
While the Broncos, led by the resurgent Peyton Manning, are seeking their eighth successive victory, the Raiders are contemplating a sixth straight defeat. But even at these polarised ends of the spectrum, there's still plenty to play for in this divisional rivalry.
Denver may have already wrapped up the AFC West and booked their play-off ticket, but now it's all about upgrading that ticket to the best seat in the house. They will struggle to overturn Houston's claims to the AFC No.1 seeding, yet the No.2 berth (and its preferential bye-week/home-field advantages) is theirs for the taking. They lie level in the postseason standings with both New England and Baltimore - even marginally behind them on conference tiebreakers - but will benefit from an easier run-in to the regular season.
The Raiders, meanwhile, are already thinking about the rebuilding process for next year. They have some tools at their disposal but have fashioned few meaningful performances with them. Consequently, all they can hope to do tonight is feed their home fans some cold comforts ahead of their 10th consecutive campaign without a play-off appearance.
Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer has had to deal with falling short of expectations more than most. Blessed of a cannon arm and good awareness in the pocket, this former Heisman Trophy winner has nevertheless failed to convert his collegiate promise into league performances. He probably has one more good season in him but, more immediately, will be out to redeem a poor career record against Denver (a four-game losing streak where his picks have outweighed his TDs).
Palmer certainly has options amid an underachieving receiving corps, if his lethargic offense can grant him some time. And tight end Brandon Myers, who is increasingly finding the space in opponents' secondaries, looks the best of those.
Elsewhere, with Marcel Reece nursing a niggling hamstring, expect rushing star Darren McFadden to step up the pace.
The truly ingrained problems for Oakland, though, reside on defense. The combined scoreboard of their last five games reads a woeful 96-189, and their NFL rankings are accordingly probing class lows: bottom in scoring defense (31.3 points per match), 28th against the run (130.4 yards) and 25th against the pass (256.6). If you can't stop the run or the pass, the least you can hope for is a one-dimensional offense upon which to focus your efforts.
However, Oakland faces up to one of the better balanced offenses in the league. Manning is near the top of the charts for touchdowns, completion percentage and overall QB rating, proving that even career-threatening neck surgery has not altered the perfect wiring installed from his brain to his throwing shoulder.
Their ground assault, on the other hand, was dealt a blow with Willis McGahee's torn knee ligaments, but Knowshon Moreno has taken over to solid if unspectacular effect with the exciting Ronnie Hillman also waiting in the wings. McGahee may well return for the play-offs.
However, in the meantime, slowing the computational commands of Manning and his myriad receivers will be Oakland's main avenue to respectability.
Still, the impression persists that while the Broncos have chalked up 30 points or more in six of their last seven, Manning knows that discretion will invariably be the better part of valour, now that it comes to securing the best record for the postseason. He may take his foot off the pedal to minimise mistakes, and the Raiders can definitely stay within hailing distance of some generous handicap lines.
And if Palmer gets inspired - whisper it - this could even be close.
Back Oakland Raiders (+10.5 points) on the Match Point Spread @ 1.9420/21 or better
Back Oakland Raiders (+6.5 points) on the First-Half Point Spread @ 2.111/10 or better
Back B Myers to be First/Anytime Touchdown Scorer @ 12.011/1 or better