Defensive backs from the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs traded salvos this week, part of the NFL dead period for teams that aren’t negotiating with a franchise-tagged player.
Obi Melifonwu and Marcus Peters standing up for their teams is instructive: The two related actions, in vivid color and detail, further catalyze a Raiders-Chiefs rivalry that reignited last year after spending most of the modern era as a non-factor.
What was also notable about this back-and-forth: the singular focus on each other.
The last time an AFC West feud of relevance occurred without the Denver Broncos was 2010, when Josh McDaniels and Kyle Orton were the team’s prominent figures. That this exchange between the Chiefs and Raiders could go on without the Broncos being involved illustrates, to some degree, how they’re being perceived after their first playoff absence since that dreadful 2010 season.
While Melifonwu’s and Peters’ responses could have been geared around specific questions, the fact that the Broncos weren’t a soundbite-generating topic is interesting.
Despite winning five of the seven AFC West championships this decade and booking two Super Bowl berths, it’s possible the Broncos could actually play the no-respect card this season.
That sounds far-fetched given how many players the Broncos still employ from their 2015 title campaign, but T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib — two of the signature voices of what has been the league’s most dominant defense during the mid-2010s — can actually start to play up this “disrespect angle” to rev up the troops.
Motivation can be an overrated tool for professionals paid seven or eight figures during a season, but we’ve seen coaches play this card even when it doesn’t apply. If the Chiefs-Raiders rivalry continues to receive national attention it has lacked for decades, the Broncos can take that as a major oversight given how much they have accomplished compared to their top rivals.
Over the past 20 years, Denver has qualified for four of the five Super Bowls in which an AFC West team has participated. The only exception: The 2002 Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. (Widening the parameters to 31 years, the Broncos have made seven of the nine Super Bowls an AFC West team has secured. The 1994 San Diego Chargers, in Super Bowl XXIX, marked the other exception. Although that 7-of-9 figure is less relevant, John Elway was involved in the previous three Super Bowl trips over that 31-year period, and given that he’s the general manager now, those 1980s accomplishments aren’t totally irrelevant to the cause of upholding Denver’s reputation.)
The Broncos’ three championships in the past 20 years are three more than any other divisional rival, and even between their two demonstrative peaks (the late 1990s and the Peyton Manning years this decade), their 2005 version crept into an AFC Championship Game. The Chiefs and Raiders have combined for one such bracket appearance over the past 23 years (Oakland in 2002).
There probably should be some built-in respect for the franchise that has lapped the field in terms of modern-era AFC West success. The prospect that there isn’t could be a notable factor in the Broncos’ bid to advance to their sixth playoff bracket in seven years.
Las Vegas’s MGM and Bovada sports books each have the Broncos as the division’s second-most likely team to win the Super Bowl, both placing the Raiders first and the Chiefs third. (If anything, the Chiefs can definitely play this card, having beaten the Raiders twice in 2016 and being regarded as a far lesser operation by comparison a year later.)
Vegas’s view won’t be a factor if key Bronco provocateurs want to rile up their teammates with potentially accurate tales of disrespect, but it still displays how seriously the sports books are taking their defense — one whose pass stoppage performance was even better than the Super Bowl champion team.
With the exception of DeMarcus Ware’s spot, there isn’t another obvious step down from the 2016 Broncos to this year’s version. Denver threw resources at its offensive and defensive lines, which were key weaknesses last season, and added several players who could augment its persistent trouble at the auxiliary pass-catching positions. This doesn’t mean the Broncos will definitively be better, but it’s tough to imagine them being much worse, given what they lost compared to what has been added.
Paxton Lynch or Trevor Siemian won’t locate targets any better, and they will be the obvious drivers of a Broncos playoff pursuit. Aerial accuracy can’t exactly be achieved by outside scrutiny-fueled motivation, but this no-respect well is one the rest of the team can draw water from as the season nears.
The players most responsible for a defense-fueled championship are still around — that probably shouldn’t be overlooked.
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