Another strong performance Sunday against the visiting Raiders, however, would move the Broncos a step closer to ending a four-year playoff drought.
Denver fired veteran coach Mike Shanahan, who led the franchise to its only two Super Bowl titles, in part because of last season’s disastrous finish following a 3-0 start, which included three straight losses in December.
The Broncos turned to 33-year-old Josh McDaniels and they got off to another strong start by winning their first six games, including a 23-3 victory in Oakland on Sept. 27.
With injuries piling up once again, Denver is scrambling to avoid another late swoon.
The Broncos had seemed to buck that trend with back-to-back wins, but that run ended with a 28-16 defeat last Sunday at unbeaten Indianapolis - Denver’s fifth loss in seven games.
Despite those losses, Denver (8-5) leads the AFC’s wild-card race by one game over Miami, New York, Baltimore and Jacksonville. The Broncos still have a faint chance of catching San Diego in the AFC West but face a two-game deficit.
A loss this week and a Chargers win put a division title out of reach.
“We all understand where we’re at,” McDaniels said. “At the beginning of the season, we wanted to put ourselves into a position at this point to be able to play in the postseason. We’ve done that. Now, our urgency has to go up along with the rest of the league’s. We can’t take any days off (or) any plays off.”
The Broncos could use a strong performance from Brandon Marshall(notes) and quarterback Kyle Orton(notes) as they’re potentially facing a short-handed backfield. Last season, Denver used seven different running backs, none playing more than 12 games.
Correll Buckhalter(notes) hasn’t practiced all week due to an ankle injury, and LaMont Jordan(notes) is recovering from an ailing back. Knowshon Moreno(notes), who leads the team and all NFL rookies with 837 yards, also has a banged-up ankle.
With a record-setting performance, Marshall nearly helped Denver rally from a 21-point deficit against the Colts, setting an NFL mark with 21 receptions for a career-best 200 yards and two touchdowns.
However, he’s failed to top 84 yards in six career games against the Raiders (4-9) and had five catches for 67 yards in the first meeting this season.
The Broncos chose to rely more on the run in their Sept. 27 victory with Buckhalter gaining 108 yards on 14 carries and Moreno adding 90 on 21 attempts. Marshall, however, opened the scoring with a 2-yard reception, one of his career-best nine touchdowns this season.
Denver also intercepted Oakland quarterback JaMarcus Russell(notes) twice and sacked him three times, but the Raiders will turn to Charlie Frye(notes) after Bruce Gradkowski(notes) tore the MCL in both of his knees in last week’s 34-13 home loss to Washington.
“As the coach I want to do what I think is best for this team, and that’s Charlie Frye,” coach Tom Cable said. “It gives us the best opportunity to win. You watch Charlie every day and his preparation, he just certainly deserves the opportunity.”
After taking over for the beleaguered Russell on Nov. 22, Gradkowski was 2-2 as a starter, leading the Raiders to comeback wins over Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
Frye, playing for his third team in three seasons, was 19 of 33 for 149 yards, one touchdown and one interception in his only game against Denver, a 17-7 defeat for Cleveland on Oct. 22, 2006. He hasn’t thrown a pass during the regular season since Oct. 12, 2008, while playing for Seattle.
The Broncos are searching for their 23rd win in 30 matchups against the Raiders since their return to Oakland in 1995. They have won 11 of 14 home meetings in that span.
The Raiders, however, snapped a three-game skid at Invesco Field with last season’s 31-10 victory. Oakland’s Darren McFadden(notes) rushed for a pair of touchdowns, and Hillis had the Broncos’ only TD.