A year ago this time, I picked the Saints as my surprise team for 2009. Score one for this usually-awful-at-predicting-this-kind-of-thing writer.
Feeling saucy, I'll go out on a limb again. As their fight song goes — yes, pro teams used to be proud of these — "The Raider name is on the way to football fame!"
Now, let's clear something up. Last year, I had the Saints in the Super Bowl. I am not ready to do that with the Silver and Black. I'll throw out a reasonable number: How does 10 wins sound? That puts them in the playoff hunt and in position to challenge the Chargers in the AFC West.
So how do we get to 10 wins? I think they'll upset the Titans in Week One and get to 3-0 with wins over the Rams and Cardinals. They'll win the Bay Area battle with the 49ers and rip off three in a row after that against the Broncos, Seahawks and Chiefs. And they'll close out the season winning three of their final four.
Believe it or not, I think I am being conservative. I have them going 6-2 on the road and 4-4 at home, and losing to the Chargers twice. Could they win more than 10? We'll pump those brakes for now.
But optimism abounds, and not just from a talking head like me.
"The team is young and hungry," QB Jason Campbell told me. "Guys want to win, and (I'm) able to (show my) leadership. ... It's a fresh start."
So let's revisit that first question, with a little more meat in the answer: How do the Raiders get to 10 wins?
Here are a few reasons I think they will:
— Improved run defense. Most teams carved up the Raiders on the ground last season. The Chiefs, Broncos, Giants, Jets, Bengals, Cowboys, Browns and Ravens all rushed for 164 yards or more against them. But the additions of DE Lamarr Houston, DT John Henderson and MLB Rolando McClain to an already solid corps will reap big benefits. The 89-yard TD run by Bears RB Matt Forté in the second preseason game is worrisome, but that was without DT Richard Seymour and CB Nnamdi Asomugha on the field. The Raiders will be tested right away, facing Chris Johnson and Steven Jackson in Weeks One and Two.
— Passing game. The Raiders might be a run-heavy operation under coordinator Hue Jackson, but the passing game should develop enough to keep defenses honest. Campbell never will be elite, but he's a better fit here — throwing the ball more vertically — than in a West Coast system. The young wideouts are improving, and TE Zach Miller is primed for a big season.
— Kicking game. Explosive teams such as the Colts and Saints can get away with subpar special teams, but the Raiders will use their kicking game as a key strength. P Shane Lechler is a field changer, and PK Sebastian Janikowski has the leg to make big kicks. If the punt- and kickoff-return units can improve (29th and 32nd, respectively in '09), it will kick-start the offense.
Potential Achilles' heels? Well, the O-line, for one. If they can't block, the offense will sputter. Let's face it: This team isn't going to hang 40 points on anyone without a five-turnover day on defense. They'll be in a lot of 17-14 type of games.
The Saints had their warts in '08. They were 22nd in turnover differential and 28th in rushing. Those numbers rose to third and sixth in '09. The Raiders have a long way to go, but it can be done. And they have my backing, for what it's worth.
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