Less than three weeks into the 2021 edition of the NFL, the AFC West is playing out just as we all expected. Sitting atop the division, undefeated, are the Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos.
Wait, that is not what you expected? Well, neither did so many so-called experts going into this season.
But with a Sunday night loss to the hungry Baltimore Ravens, the Kansas City Chiefs joined the L.A. Chargers in falling to 1-1. In turn, the Broncos (a win over Urban Meyer’s wannabe college program) and the Raiders (a win over a real football team) jumped into an early-season first-place tie in the Wild Wild West.
Be that as it may, which squad is the better team? Let’s break down this weirdly polarizing topic. In particular, we will focus on the following three crucial factors.
Competition Speaks Volume
That is the main arguing point for Raiders fans, and it’s a solid one. The Broncos, aided by their last-place finish in 2020, have the luxury of starting this season against fellow division bottom dwellers. In Week 1, that was the New York Football Giants, who have played more like Rick Moranis’ Little Giants in recent years. The G-Men have the worst overall record in the league since 2017; they’re a staggering 18-48 in that time. That was a game the Broncos were expected to win.
Denver followed up that 27-13 beatdown with a 23-13 handling of the lowly Jaguars. That team has their future in Trevor Lawrence, but also their kryptonite in the much-maligned Urban Meyer. For a team with a terrific defense, Denver could have beat Daniel Jones and Trevor Lawrence with seven guys on the field instead of 11.
The Raiders, by comparison, played the 2019 MVP and then a future Hall of Famer/Super Bowl champion back-to-back.
There is simply no debate here. The Raiders’ two victories are way more impressive than the Broncos, who continue their stretch of layup games when they face the New York Jets in Denver on Sunday. Go ahead and book them as a 3-0 squad now; there is no excuse for them not to be.
Teddy “Two-Gloves” Bridgewater has his mojo back. The masterful game-manager has four touchdowns, zero interceptions, and an outrageous 78% completion percentage heading into his third game at the helm. He is the best quarterback in Denver since Peyton Manning retired in 2015. That says more about the state of the Broncos than it does about Bridgewater. Nonetheless, Teddy is the ideal fit to lead this talented offensive unit. Alongside a strong running game and a top-10 defense, he finds himself in the perfect situation to succeed once again. So long as he makes good decisions with the ball (in other words, as long as he doesn’t impersonate Drew Lock), Bridgewater can win plenty of games for the Orange Crush.
On the flip side, Derek Carr is essentially the anti-Teddy Bridgewater. Heading into Week 3, Carr is second in the NFL in passing yards with 817. He’s aggressively pushing the ball down the field, avoiding the check-downs that Bridgewater is known for, the same check-downs that Carr was criticized for in the past. He seems like a man on a mission, rejuvenated by his desire to win and his familiarity with Gruden’s system. While an improved defense has helped Las Vegas early on, they are 2-0 because Carr is red-hot and, the team is feeding off of it. He is an unquestioned MVP candidate thus far.
Carr is a better and more exciting quarterback than Bridgewater and always will be. But considering each player’s situation, they have nearly identical chances to win going forward. The Raiders may hold the talent advantage here, but Denver has the guy they need under center to get them to an 18th game.
The modern NFL is a pass-first, offensive-driven league. Yet the adage “defense wins championships” still carries weight. If there’s something the Broncos have oodles of, it’s defensive talent. From Von Miller and Bradley Chubb to Kareem Jackson and Patrick Surtain II, Denver can shut down any offense in the league. They’ve been good at this defense thing for a long time.
The Raiders, meanwhile, have been allergic to this whole defending concept for most of the century. Just last season, the Silver and Black put forth their worst defensive effort in franchise history, and they have had some bad defenses in their time. The hiring of Gus Bradley, alongside the growth of Maxx Crosby and additions of Yannick Ngakoue and Casey Hayward, have this unit finally playing confident and with plenty of juice. Will they be a top-10 unit by the season’s end? That’s highly unlikely. But can/should they be a mid-tier defense that generates turnovers? No doubt.
The Broncos hold the advantage here (duh), and they may have their best defensive group since their Super Bowl win. That’s scary and makes Denver a real threat to anybody in the AFC West.
So who’s the better squad?
In a head-to-head, these teams will likely duel it out until the final whistle. But after 17 games, who will have the better record? That’s Las Vegas all day.
Again, Denver is a real threat this season. Top to bottom, their roster is strong and meshes well. But they have to beat actual opponents to be taken more seriously than the Raiders (or Chiefs), and that has not happened yet. Week 5 will be their first real test when they host Baltimore. That matchup should tell us plenty about Vic Fangio’s group.
Overall, however, the Raiders have a better quarterback. They have better coaching. They have proven they can beat quality teams. The Raiders have a path to the postseason if they can avoid another December drop-off.
Yet they better watch their back because Denver will be on their heels all season long.
*Top Photo: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post