Press Coverage

Raiders among dark-horse playoff contenders in 2020

In NFL.com's Press Coverage series, columnists Judy Battista, Jeffri Chadiha, Michael Silver and Jim Trotter engage in a back-and-forth discussion on a timely topic, issue or theme. In this edition, MICHAEL SILVER leads off a roundtable on potential playoff dark-horses in 2020.

A year ago at this time, the Raiders' plans for a breakthrough season were blowing up before our eyes. As the Antonio Brown frozen feet/helmet/cursing the GM/etc. fiasco unfolded on Hard Knocks (well, only some of it was on the HBO show, but we had other ways of finding out), it was plain to see that the second season of Jon Gruden's Second Act as the Raiders' coach would not proceed smoothly.

Sure enough, the Raiders struggled, trudging through a 7-9 season to miss the playoffs for the 16th time in 17 years. With Brown getting booted before playing a game for the Silver and Black and free-agent acquisition Tyrell Williams fighting through plantar fasciitis in both feet, Gruden's passing attack never truly got untracked, and the defense remained deficient.

And yet: There was a moment, midway through November, when the Raiders suddenly looked capable of making a run. After consecutive home victories over the Lions, Chargers and Bengals (yeah, I know), Oakland was 6-4 and in the thick of the wild-card chase. Four consecutive defeats -- the first three of them by wide margins -- put an end to that fantasy, but it did give me a sense of what this team's potential might be.

That brings us to this surreal summer: The Raiders now reside in Las Vegas (with their training facility in suburban Henderson), and they're mostly operating in the shadows, staging early morning practices that aren't being broadcast to the masses. They play in the same division as the defending Super Bowl champs, and very few people are talking about them.

Privately, however, Vegas' players and coaches are swooning over this ensemble, and the prospect that the Raiders will be one of the NFL's surprise teams in 2020. And while I know that's going on, to some extent, in every camp, I'm inclined to buy into that possibility.

First of all, the Raiders' offense should be formidable. Many people in the building believe they have the best offensive line in football; it's certainly among the most physical, which means second-year back Josh Jacobs should be able to get in touch with his inner thumper and be even better than he was as a rookie.

As for the passing game -- well, most fans won't recognize it. The Raiders drafted speedster Henry Ruggs III 12th overall and added physically imposing wideout Bryan Edwards in the third round. Both should make immediate contributions. Tight end Darren Waller emerged as a legitimate downfield threat last season, with 90 receptions for 1,145 yards, and sure-handed, 38-year-old future Hall of Famer Jason Witten was brought in as the opposite of a downfield threat.

Translation: There should be lots of guys open, especially because play-action should be very effective.

That brings us to the guy who'll be delivering the ball to those open receivers: Derek Carr. Each offseason of the Gruden regime, there has been talk of replacing him, and yet Carr is still standing, and seemingly mad as hell (for him) and not gonna take it anymore.

I'm guessing his job will be a little easier than it has been in the past. And it hasn't been easy: Since Carr entered the league in 2014, the Raiders have allowed 26 points per game, most in the NFL during that span. In 94 career starts, Carr has trailed in the fourth quarter 54 times -- one reason he's tied with Matthew Stafford for the most fourth-quarter comebacks (18) over the past six seasons.

The Raiders believe they fortified the middle of their defense with three additions who aren't big names but who have been adept at doing the dirty work: Linebackers Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski and defensive tackle Maliek Collins. Throw in the expected development of safety Johnathan Abram, a first-round draft pick in 2019 who missed all but one game of his rookie year after suffering a torn rotator cuff in Week 1, and Paul Guenther's unit could at least be passable this season.

Add it all up, and I'm picking the 2020 Raiders to be the team Gruden envisioned when he came back to coaching two years ago: One which simply outscores most of its opponents, with the occasional opportunistic play on defense to supplement a balanced, high-powered, dynamic attack.

And yes, in their first year in Nevada, I think they'll sneak into the playoffs.

Who else has caught our eye as a potential dark-horse team in 2020? My Press Coverage colleagues Judy Battista, Jeffri Chadiha and Jim Trotter have some thoughts ...

JUDY BATTISTA: My dark-horse pick doesn't even feel like much of a dark horse. The Indianapolis Colts were 7-9 last year, looked like a playoff team in the first half of the season and made significant upgrades in the two areas that bedeviled them the most: quarterback and rushing the quarterback.

I think the signing of Philip Rivers looks even smarter now than it did in the spring. Given the lack of offseason work, Rivers' familiarity and previous success in Frank Reich's offense figures to be a huge plus. After all, the Colts started last season at 5-2 with Jacoby Brissett (beating the Chiefs and Texans), lost to the Steelers when Adam Vinatieri missed a 43-yard field goal and dropped six of Brissett's last eight starts after he suffered a sprained MCL in November. And you have to assume that Rivers, who threw 23 touchdowns and 20 interceptions (eek!) last year, will be much better than he was for the Chargers, because he won't be running for his life behind the Colts' offensive line, which happens to be one of the best in the league and is returning all its starters.

And I think the blockbuster trade for DeForest Buckner was simply one of the best moves of the year, producing what I expect to be one of the biggest upgrades in the league. Buckner had had 19.5 sacks with 34 quarterback hits in the last two seasons -- and generating pressure from the interior is kind of important when you face Deshaun Watson twice a year, and you also have Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger on the schedule this season.

Those upgrades plus just a little bit better luck -- each of their first five 2019 losses came by seven points or fewer -- and the Colts of 2020 should look a lot more like the Colts of 2018 (we still miss you, Andrew Luck) than the Colts of 2019. GM Chris Ballard has done great work assembling this roster and, if Rivers stays healthy, I'll be shocked if Indy's not at least a playoff team and capable of making a run.

JEFFRI CHADIHA: This might sound like a crazy pick, but so be it: I'll take Tampa Bay. If this conversation truly is about picking the team that is ready to shine after missing the postseason in 2019, then there's no reason to go with anybody else. Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback in the history of football, literally walked away from the NFL's most dominant franchise to lead a team that last made the playoffs when George W. Bush was running the country. This is what they call a can't-miss situation.

Full disclosure: I never thought Brady would wind up in Tampa when he spurned New England. It felt like there was too much work to be done there, that he could find easier places to pursue the next chapter in his legacy. Now, I can see how much he craved the challenge of moving into a situation where there would be more doubts, more questions, more reasons for him to dig deeper. This was the type of place Brady needed to be in to see exactly what he still has left.

There's already ample evidence to suggest this marriage will bear great results, even with the COVID-19 pandemic making it so much harder for teams to build chemistry this offseason. Brady worked out in a closed public park when the coronavirus was first surging through Florida. He also showed up at the home of Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich when local residents were ordered to limit their movement outside of their respective domiciles. Hell, Brady held informal practices with his skill players when the NFL Players Union was recommending its members avoid such gatherings.

This all tells me that Brady isn't going to let a pandemic ruin his party. He came to Tampa Bay to keep doing what he's always done, which is contend for a championship. If there were questions about how quickly he would acclimate to his current team, he's already started answering them. This literally feels like Brady's team, and there's plenty to like about what's surrounding him.

The passing game clearly is going to be Tampa Bay's strength. Head coach Bruce Arians is an aggressive play-caller and he has plenty of weapons for Brady to utilize. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin have a good argument to make as the league's best wide receiver duo, and there are three tight ends who can cause matchup problems: Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard and Rob Gronkowski, Brady's favorite target in New England.

The offensive line improved with the addition of right tackle Tristan Wirfs, the team's first-round pick in April's draft. The defense should be better now that Brady's predecessor, Jameis Winston, left town. Winston threw a league-high 30 interceptions and lost five fumbles as well in 2019. The Bucs can expect better ball security from Brady, who isn't going to put that defense in as many difficult positions as Winston did last season.

Now does all this mean the Bucs are going to walk into the postseason? Not exactly. They have some tough opponents on their schedule, as they'll see Green Bay, Minnesota and the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs this fall. The New Orleans Saints also remain one of the best teams in the league. Tampa will have a fight on its hands when it comes to claiming the NFC South crown.

The good news for the Bucs is that eight of their first 11 games are against teams that didn't make the playoffs in 2019. That means they are primed for the type of fast start that creates major momentum in the second half. I'm still not sure if I'd pick the Bucs to be hosting the Super Bowl, which was a trendy thing to say after Brady arrived. However, they're certainly good enough to compete for the opportunity, so don't be surprised to see them playing deep into January.

JIM TROTTER: This one was easy for me. When the conversation is choosing a team that will reach the postseason after missing it last season, the Steelers are the most logical selection. One, they have a healthy and motivated Ben Roethlisberger, who missed all but the first six quarters of the 2019 season with an elbow injury on his throwing arm; and two, they nearly reached the playoffs anyway, despite the painful and consistent struggles of his backups.

Roethlisberger is a future Hall of Famer under whom the Steelers have won two Super Bowls in three appearances and reached the conference final on two other occasions. From 2014 to 2018, he directed a unit that ranked in the top 10 in scoring all five seasons and was top five in total offense four times. However, with Roethlisberger sidelined in 2019, Pittsburgh did not score at least 28 points in a single game, the only team with that dubious distinction last season.

I'm also bullish on the Steelers because they showed a resolve in 2019 that should aid them this season if faced with adversity. Consider: They lost their first three games, were 1-4 a week into October and appeared headed toward coach Mike Tomlin's first losing record in 13 seasons. But they rebounded to win seven of their next eight behind a stingy and playmaking defense that ranked No. 1 in takeaways and sacks and fifth in points allowed for the year.

Ultimately, the Steelers flamed out, losing their final three, because the offense could not get out of its own way, ranking 27th in third-down efficiency, turnovers and scoring, 29th in time of possession and 30th in first downs. Still, there were rays of hope because two of those final three defeats were by seven points or fewer.

SILVER: OK, so we're good here -- the Raiders, Colts and Steelers will be part of the AFC playoff field, and the Bucs will be an NFC postseason team. But wait ... As we all know, this is a zero-sum game. For every team that barges its way into the playoffs, another must exit.

Granted, that's not entirely true this season: Remember, the owners changed the rules last March to add an extra wild-card team in each conference, beginning in 2020.

Even so, we all know at least a few of the teams that thrived in 2019 will fall off ingloriously this year, and I'd love to take a stab at identifying the prime suspects. Jeff, why don't you lead us off?

CHADIHA: This one is a lot harder than picking who's on the rise. I normally wouldn't pick against the Seahawks because Russell Wilson has been so consistent. He's the only quarterback in NFL history to start his career with eight straight winning seasons. There's some legitimate risk involved in betting against a guy a like that.

The important thing to remember here is that two things can happen: Wilson can enjoy another winning season and the Seahawks could miss the postseason. That's how deep the NFC is going to be this fall. It's also an indication of some of the red flags that are going to appear on Seattle's horizon.

We all know the Seahawks want to pound the football on offense and they'll rely heavily on Wilson's improvisational brilliance to come through when it matters most. What's harder to discern is how they're going to operate in the trenches. There have been plenty of years when Seattle's offensive line had problems. Now both sides of the football could create issues this team may not survive.

The offensive line lost a number of key pieces, including Justin Britt, D.J. Fluker, Germain Ifedi and George Fant. Even if head coach Pete Carroll is optimistic about their replacements, there isn't going to be much time for this group to get to know each other. This is where the impact of COVID-19 is going to hurt the Seahawks. It's just hard to see a rebuilt offensive line finding its groove during an offseason where there will be so little contact.

The defensive line is even more of a mess. The greatest mystery surrounding this group is who exactly is going to pressure the quarterback. Seattle amassed a paltry 28 sacks in 2019 -- and its best pass rusher, free agent defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, clearly isn't interested in the offer the Seahawks gave him to stay put. There may be a lot of excitement about the blockbuster trade that delivered Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams from the Jets, but it's hard to see him being the same difference-maker without more substantial help up front.

One final point on the Seahawks: This might well be the year when the ball doesn't bounce in their favor so consistently. They were 9-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer, which speaks to their resilience and Wilson's playmaking ability. It's simply hard to sustain that kind of success in tight situations year in and year out. The Seahawks are likely to learn that lesson the hard way this fall.

SILVER: I knew I shouldn't have started with you, Jeff: I will not tolerate Seahawks slander in my presence.

In fact, I'm seriously thinking of picking them to win the Super Bowl, just for you.

Hopefully Judy and Jim won't pile on and dash my dreams.

BATTISTA: I can't help but feel that the Tennessee Titans overachieved, getting a career year out of Ryan Tannehill while riding Derrick Henry to the AFC Championship Game. And still, they finished 9-7. Maybe Tannehill has finally found his groove and maybe Henry can have another heavy-workload season. And maybe Vic Beasley provides a consistent pass rush (not feeling confident about this one, considering he didn't report for camp right away).

We'll know a lot more after the Titans' tough first-half schedule (Vikings, Steelers, Bills, Texans), but considering that I expect the Colts to be much improved, I think they pass the Titans -- and possibly the Texans -- in the division this season, even if the Titans are every bit as good as they were in 2019.

TROTTER: I'm with you, Judy. The Titans were the surprise of last season's playoffs, beating the Patriots in New England and closing the book on the unprecedented two-decade run of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady; then defeating the top-seeded Ravens in Baltimore and ending what appeared to be a pre-destined title run for league MVP Lamar Jackson; then twice taking 10-point, first-half leads on the Chiefs before falling to the eventual Super Bowl champions. Everything seemingly came together for them, from Tannehill's awakening to the way they relentlessly pounded teams with Henry.

However ... fairy tales rarely carry over from one season to the next in the NFL. And while the Titans have talent, they lack proven depth, a fact which figures to hurt them at some point. Can that be said of most teams? Sure, but few depend so heavily on two or three players like the Titans do. They are built around the efficiency of Tannehill and the pounding of Henry, so what happens if they miss time? They're also thin at edge rusher, and on the interior of the defensive line after Jeffery Simmons.

Another concern is that the division and the conference have gotten better. Houston remains the head of the class, having won four of the last five AFC South titles, but Indianapolis is a legit threat with the addition of Rivers. The schedule is also unkind with non-division trips to Denver, Minnesota, Baltimore and Green Bay. So while it would be foolish to completely write off the Titans, I simply don't see the magic returning in 2020.

SILVER: All three of you make persuasive arguments (even Jeff, at least when it came to his dark-horse pick), and now my head is spinning. Should I be talking up the Steelers and Colts? Should I be double-dissing the Titans? Whose idea was it to do this column, anyway? But I digress ...

With the first game still more than three weeks away, I'll have plenty of time to ponder these things. But in the meantime, I'm going to close this out by giving you the 2019 playoff team that I think will fall from grace -- and I'm not going to overthink this one.

The Patriots lost their legendary quarterback in March. They also said goodbye to some other key performers in free agency, most notably linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins and guard Ted Karras. Then, beginning last month, the wave of opt-outs struck, with a league-high eight New England players (including linebacker Dont'a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung and offensive tackle Marcus Cannon) deciding to stay away because of concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.

That's a lot of losses.

Especially Tom Brady.

Look, I know Bill Belichick is an exceptional coach who is adept at making things work when perceived adversity hits. I mean -- I was telling people how great the guy is for most of the second half of the '90s, before he took the Patriots' head-coaching job, and when it definitely wasn't a popular opinion.

Since then, I've seen some things. I was there in Arizona when the Pats stunned the Cardinals in the 2016 season opener, and I remember the 11-5 Matt Cassel season in 2008. So yeah, I'm excited by the Cam Newton signing and the potential for a career revival under offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' stewardship. I can definitely see the Patriots' offense making it work.

And yet, logic suggests that impact players aren't interchangeable, and the New England roster took a major hit. As for the culture -- well, that isn't just Belichick's culture. Brady had a lot to do with the winning atmosphere in Foxborough over the past two decades, and you can't just Next Man Up one of the greatest competitors the sport has ever known.

The AFC East still isn't anything special, but the Dolphins made some promising moves in the offseason, and I firmly believe the Bills have what it takes to take command of the division in 2020. Could the Patriots slop their way into one of the wild-card spots (and remember, there's an extra one beginning this season)? Sure.

But don't hold your breath.

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