Heading into the final game of the season, when it comes to the injury bug, it's fair to say the Denver Broncos have been bitten. That most virulent of bugs has decimated the Broncos' front seven especially, while taking a massive bite out of the offensive line.
With the Oakland Raiders coming to town for the season finale, the Broncos will enter the game sans three key players along the O-line. Offensive tackles Ja'Wuan James and Elijah Wilkinson have been ruled out, along with guard Ronald Leary.
Leary suffered a concussion in the Broncos' Week 13 victory over the Houston Texans and hasn't been able to make it out of protocol since. It's an unfortunate development, but nothing new for Leary, who has missed at least four starts in all three of the seasons he's been in Denver.
James being ruled out is no surprise, considering the fact that he's been a gameday scratch for all but three games this season. He spoke publicly about his injury for the first time on Christmas Eve, claiming that he has torn ligaments in his knee.
James says that, but if it's true, the Broncos don't appear to agree with his prognosis, as they've yet to put him on injured reserve or acknowledge the severity of his injury, other than to say it was a knee sprain that he suffered in the season-opener that derailed his season. Most teams, if a severe injury such as a torn MCL is real, will put that player on injured reserve. Yet, the Broncos have not done so with James.
Just the opposite, in fact, as it was reported that he'd been cleared medically to play a couple of weeks before the Houston game. James' public remarks refute that notion, however.
The Broncos' reluctance to put James on IR hints at some sort of disconnect between the way the team views the injury compared to the player. The question is, why the disconnect?
Wilkinson suffered an ankle injury in the second quarter last week, which saw Jake Rodgers step in at right tackle for the balance of the game. Rodgers played extremely well, earning a game ball from Vic Fangio, but it was against a Lions pass rush that is among the league's most lackluster. It'll be interesting to see if Rodgers can duplicate his performance this week.
Meanwhile, the Broncos will get DL DeMarcus Walker back for the season finale after he missed the previous three games with an ankle injury. That's good news for a defense that struggled to pressure QB Derek Carr when the Broncos last faced the Raiders in Week 1. Walker has been extremely productive as a pass rusher this year, totaling four sacks in the nine games he's appeared in, while never playing more than 51% of the defensive snaps.
The Broncos rested DL Dre'Mont Jones the first two days of the week, limiting him during practice while he recovers from the ankle sprain that cost him Week 15. He fought through the injury last week, and it paid dividends as his five-tackle, 2.5-sack performance vs. the Detroit Lions earned him AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. Jones practiced in full on Friday and will be a full go come Sunday.
As for Oakland, the Raiders could be without two key offensive players in LG Richie Incognito and 1,100-yard rusher Josh Jacobs, both of whom are listed as doubtful.