Jussel: AFC West rivals already chasing K.C.

Three games are a small sampling when looking at 16 games and maybe beyond. But, we’ll use what we’ve learned so far to look at today’s big game for the Denver Broncos and the Oakland Raiders in Denver.

We have two 2-1 teams, both one game behind the best team in the AFC, the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs. Yes, thoughts of wild-card playoff berths already start to crop up.

The loser of today’s game will fall into third place in the West and likely have two games to make up on the Chiefs, who will be favored at home against the Redskins on Monday night.

So far, both Denver and Oakland have looked alternately brilliant and pedestrian. Both have a romp (Denver 42-17 over the Cowboys, Oakland 45-24 over the Jets), a relatively tight win (Denver 24-21 over the Chargers, Oakland 26-16 over Tennessee), and an ugly loss (Denver 26-16 in Buffalo, Oakland 27-10 in Washington).

Safe to say, both teams will be pumped.

After what has unfortunately turned into a national anthem sideshow, there will be some serious hitting. You can bet Von Miller won’t be laughing, joking and pranking on Oakland QB Derek Carr in this one.

Denver would appear to have an advantage on both sides of the ball.

The Broncos are fourth overall defensively, allowing a league-low 59 yards rushing and 203 yards per game passing. Good numbers both ways.

Oakland, on the other hand, ranks only 26th defensively, allowing 112 rushing yards and 252 passing yards per game.

Offensively, Denver also has the edge, rushing for 143 yards and passing for 212 yards per game, compared to Oakland’s 107 rushing and 192 passing yards.

Should be a Bronco romp, right?

If only it were that simple. It won’t be.

Denver has a problem for which there may be no solution: Oakland has an outside linebacker named Khalil Mack. Denver has a right tackle named Menelik Watson. They will be matched against each other throughout.

To our telltale tool, Pro Football Focus.

Mack is the third-rated edge defender in the league with a 90.1 grade. In his three games, he has 16 tackles, two sacks and two passes defended. He must be accounted for every play.

Surely you remember a game two years ago in Denver. Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler was sacked five times, all by Mack, mostly courtesy of the infamous Michael Schofield, now a former Bronco. Oakland won that one 15-12.

Now, it is Watson who gets his shot at Mack. Watson is the 65th-ranked offensive tackle in the league with a score of 35.1, according to PFF. There are only 64 starting tackles in the league.

Watson, a former Raider who has spent countless hours trying to block Mack in practice sessions — obviously with little success or he would still be a Raider — is going to have to have help.

It’s on Bronco offensive coordinator Mike McCoy use formations to chip at Mack with tight ends, running backs, maybe even pulling guards. Denver can also run at Mack, use play-action to delay his rush, throw swing passes to C.J. Anderson and the increasingly valuable Jamaal Charles, maybe wide receiver screens to the side opposite Mack.

Whatever the final scoreboard tally is, Denver’s dealing with Mack is going to have a lot to do with it.

So, where does Denver have an edge?

The Broncos have several.

Denver’s defensive front has spent time this season going against great tailbacks — Melvin Gordan of the Chargers, Zeke Elliott of Dallas and LeSean McCoy of Buffalo.

Today, it will be a different type of beast in Raider tailback Marshawn Lynch. Lynch is a banger, but has been mostly ineffective so far with 139 yards, a 3.9-yard average and only one touchdown.

If Denver bottles up Lynch, look for Oakland coach Jack Del Rio to insert the quicker Jalen Richard and/or DeAndre Washington for pass-catching purposes.

The Broncos also have corners who match up well with Oakland wideouts Amare Cooper and Michael Crabtree — remember Aqib Talib ripping off Crabtree’s necklace?

Cooper has not been effective this season, being targeted 23 times, only catching 10 passes. Crabtree has 13 receptions and three TDs, but is doubtful with a chest injury.

Denver’s offense has been effective for 2½ games. The Broncos — mainly quarterback Trevor Siemian — stunk it up in the second half last week against Buffalo. Lots of pressure, too many bad decisions.

As mentioned, Oakland will try to pressure Siemian. Keep tabs on Anderson and Charles. If they are piling up yards, Denver will be winning.

I’m having a hard time getting synced with Denver at 1-2 on the season. Let’s get back on track by saying Denver wins this one 24-20.


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