Entering the 2016 NFL season with one of their most talented rosters in years, the Oakland Raiders could be ready to end one of the longest playoff droughts in all of American sports. It all starts in Week 1 when they visit the New Orleans Saints on Sunday afternoon.
Very little about Oakland’s recent history gives fans of the team any reason to be optimistic. Having missed the playoffs in every season since 2002, only the Buffalo Bills have gone longer without reaching the postseason. During that time, the Raiders have nearly gone winless in Week 1, losing 12 of their last 13 season openers. But Oakland is headed in the right direction after improving in 2015 and this past offseason, while New Orleans has been mired in mediocrity.
Following a 3-13 season in 2014 that forced the Raiders to fire yet another head coach, Jack Del Rio led Oakland to a 7-9 finish in 2015. It was the team’s best record since 2011, remaining competitive throughout the season behind budding superstars.
Quarterback Derek Carr was named to the Pro Bowl in his second season, and he will only get better after throwing for 32 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Amari Cooper could establish himself as an elite wide receiver after making the Pro Bowl as a rookie, and defensive end Khalil Mack might end up winning the Defensive Player of the Year award in his third season.
Oakland’s front office was aggressive this past offseason, adding some of the top free agents to their young core. Players like offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele, linebacker Bruce Irvin and cornerback Sean Smith could put the Raiders over the hump and give them a chance to contend for the AFC West title.
But while the Raiders continue to get better, the Saints look similar to the New Orleans team that missed the playoffs last year. Going 7-9 in three of the last four seasons, Drew Brees and Co. could suffer the same fate in 2016.
New Orleans always has a top offense, ranking fourth or better in total yards every season since 2011. Brees just signed a contract extension with the Saints, and he could lead the league in passing like he did in 2015. The team’s defense, however, kept them out of the playoffs, and the unit could struggle mightily against a potentially explosive Oakland offense.
The Saints’ defense ranked dead last in 2015, allowing 29.8 points per game. The 45 passing touchdowns New Orleans allowed were nine more than the Philadelphia Eagles, who ranked 31st in that category. The team didn’t add any significant secondary help in free agency, and their biggest acquisition, defensive tackle Nick Fairley, has had trouble staying on the field since he entered the league five years ago.
New Orleans is a slight favorite at home (Saints-1, over/under 51, per OddsShark), but Oakland is the better team. The Raiders shouldn’t have trouble surpassing the 30-point mark and starting off the year with a victory.
Prediction: Oakland over New Orleans, 35-27