DENVER -- The Raiders lost control of their playoff destiny during a sloppy four-game losing streak coming around the final curve but their postseason hopes are still breathing heading into Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Denver Broncos.
They need tons of help and a win Sunday to make the math work and sneak in at 8-8 on a strength of victory tiebreaker.
Stranger things have happened, but not many. Last week’s events count as one. They needed a five-time parlay and win over the L.A. Chargers, and everything came up roses.
It can’t this week if the Raiders lose. That won’t be easy against a favored Broncos team closing the season strong, hosting a game in cold weather played a mile up.
“We have to keep our mind on the football game because if we don’t win nothing matters,” quarterback Derek Carr said. “We just got to make sure we take care of business.”
Count Carr among the five Raiders to watch heading into this literal must-win game, but he’s not atop our list:
WR Hunter Renfrow
The rookie receiver missed three games with a broken rib and a punctured lung. The Raiders lost each one, and clearly missed him. Renfrow’s absence was felt in the middle of the field, especially on third down.
His return proved just how valuable he is to the offense as a whole. He had seven catches for 107 yards and a long touchdown that opened the scoring in a crucial victory over the Chargers.
He’s the team’s most reliable receiver at this point and continues to come through in the clutch. That’s especially true while trying to move the chains. Renfrow has 21 catches for 301 yards, three touchdowns and 16 first downs converted on 30 third-down targets. That’s, well, pretty good. Renfrow’s third-down conversions lead all NFL rookies.
“He just has a great feel of getting open,” I remember talking to [Clemson coach Dabo] Swinney and he called it third and Renfrow. Like seriously, that’s like a real thing. He just has such a good feel, a good knack of getting open. Even if he’s not first in the progression for whatever reason the ball just finds him and it’s just awesome to see. When someone works that hard usually good things happen for that person.”
Carr will need a reliable outlet in the middle of the field, someone who can find space and make important catches while coverage is shaded towards Darren Waller. He needs to create quick separation and give Carr options to mitigate the Broncos pass rush. Renfrow needs to play at his absolute best for the Raiders to get a tough win.
QB Derek Carr
It’s going to be sunny, clear and near freezing cold on Sunday in Denver. That means you’ve already read a ton about Carr’s 1-9 record in games played in weather below 45 degrees, how his completion percentage dips in such environments.
Coaches don’t buy into that narrative believing that record isn’t all on Carr. It’s about the team and the opponents. He does have to be awesome on Sunday, a clause I’d write no matter where this game was being played. That’s especially true with Josh Jacobs unlikely to play due to a fractured shoulder that has caused him pain since Week 7.
DeAndre Washington was serviceable in Jacobs’ feature back role, but the Broncos will certainly stack the box and force Carr to win this one. He has been clutch his entire career, with 18 career fourth-quarter comebacks. He’s in the midst of a career year in many respects despite playing with an ever-changing receiver corps. He’s awesome on third down, leading the NFL with a 129.6 passer rating on third down.
“He just plays his best football in critical situations,” head coach Jon Gruden said. “I mean I don’t know what the numbers say, but he’s audibled, he’s made accurate tight-window throws. That’s a tough down to throw the ball on for sure, but I just think the bigger the moment, the better he plays.”
Carr was really good last week against the Chargers. He only missed four passes, had 8.1 yards per attempt, extended plays with his legs and even ran for a score. A repeat performance should be good enough to get a win and take the cold-weather collar off his neck.
The team’s franchise quarterback has been heavily criticized, often irrationally, this season despite generally strong play. The fan base is dying for more wins than he has provided. Getting one in Denver would make him a hero again, whether the Raiders make the playoffs or not, and end this regular season on a high note.”
CB Trayvon Mullen
The Raiders’ second-round NFL draft pick wasn’t expected to play Sunday, not after taking a huge hit to the head and neck last week that required a trip to the hospital. He wasn’t diagnosed with a concussion and rebounded fast enough to practice some and be able to play against the Broncos.
That’s huge news considering Mullen is the Raiders’ most talented cornerback. He has progressed steadily throughout the season, bringing physicality, toughness and ball skills to the position that suggest he’ll be around a while. He’s also a fierce competitor, which is why he pushed so hard to play in Sunday’s game.
He’ll often be charged with slowing explosive Broncos receiver Cortland Sutton, who is playing well with rookie quarterback Drew Lock.
“He’s a big guy who knows how to use his hands,” Mullen said. “You need good fundamentals and technique against him. If not, sees explosive and he’ll expose you. He’s a physical guy who plays hard. There will be a lot of good competition.”
DE Maxx Crosby
The Eastern Michigan product leads the team with 8.5 sacks this season but has fallen off a bit in recent weeks. Whether it’s the rookie wall or just an inefficient run, Crosby only has two pressures in his last three games. He needs to ratchet that up in this game and disrupt Lock whenever possible.
Lock has been playing well, with a 3-1 record since taking over as a starter. The Raiders defense runs well with pressure upfront, which was kicking around midseason when the team went on a three-game winning streak.
Crosby is the team’s best finisher on defense and someone adept stripping ball carriers. It might take some big plays on defense to win this game. Crosby might have to be the spark in this game that gets the Raiders rolling. He’s certainly capable but must perform when it matters most.
RT David Sharpe
The Florida alum is the team’s starting right tackle now. Trent Brown’s on injured reserve and Brandon Parker was ineffective in recent weeks and got benched against the Chargers.
Sharpe has been solid in spot duty, but his toughest test comes Sunday against Von Miller. The Broncos explosive edge rusher often comes at the right tackle and is quick and dangerous and as relentless as they come. Sharpe has been solid blocking for the run and just okay in pass protection. He’ll have to be at his best in all areas to give Carr the time required to work the ball down the field. The Raiders will often help him with chipping tight ends and running backs, but he’ll have to hold up on his own at times.
This is a big moment in his career and could show the Raiders and other teams that he’s worth having around.