Just a few weeks ago, many of us thought we had the NFL figured out.
No 2017 regular-season games had been played, and we knew the New England Patriots were supposed to win the Super Bowl, the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Los Angeles Rams were supposed to spend the year rebuilding and the Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders were supposed to emerge as title contenders.
That's because sports look so obvious on paper, before teams start playing the games and things like momentum, pressure, stress and—this is the big one—injuries factor in.
Nearly four full weeks into the 2017 campaign, those components have changed the trajectory of the season for almost everybody, especially the supposed favorite and the purported rebuilders and risers.
Just look at the Raiders, who in the 2017 offseason were bet on to win the Super Bowl more than any other NFL team—including the Patriots—at Las Vegas sportsbooks. Oakland got back to the playoffs last year for the first time since 2002, with emerging franchise quarterback Derek Carr putting together a superstar-caliber campaign before suffering a broken leg in Week 16.
With Carr healthy, the Raiders entered this season with even higher expectations.
But the Raiders have now laid eggs in back-to-back high-exposure road losses to playoff contenders and are again dealing with an injury to Carr.
Following an impressive 2-0 start, Carr and the Raiders didn't show up for a Monday Night Football dud against the Washington Redskins in Week 3, falling 27-10 on a night in which Carr threw an uncharacteristic two interceptions and took an even less characteristic four sacks.
They followed that up with another poor effort against the division rival Denver Broncos on Sunday, with Carr completing just 10 of 18 passes for 143 yards in 40 minutes of action. That's 40 and not 60 because he had to leave the game in the third quarter after suffering a back injury on a sack.
Carr, who was sacked on consecutive snaps in that quarter, wasn't able to produce outside of a 64-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Johnny Holton. If not for that, the Raiders would have been shut out during his time in the game.
Down 16-7 on the road against one of the best defenses in the league, the Raiders then suffered the consequences of not having a better insurance policy at quarterback. Backup EJ Manuel wasn't able to push the ball deep down the field as Oakland tried to stage a fourth-quarterback comeback, and when he finally did take a shot, it was a floating pass on an ill-advised gamble that resulted in a game-sealing interception.
|What happened to the Raiders offense?|
|Category||First two weeks||Next two weeks|
|Pro Football Reference|
Manuel isn't good enough to keep the Raiders afloat against a daunting schedule in the league's most competitive division, which is one reason it's beginning to look as though this team's dream season faces the possibility of becoming a nightmare.
That's not to say I'm condemning the Raiders, who may have dodged a bullet with Carr's injury. ESPN's Adam Schefter reports that the 26-year-old suffered back spams and that the team doesn't believe the injury to be serious.
But it's important to consider that Carr wasn't himself before he got hurt. He had the third-lowest-rated passer rating of his professional career against the Redskins, and he was almost entirely ineffective outside of one pass in Denver.
If Carr misses any time at all, the Raiders could be doomed. If he suits up but is less than 100 percent, the Raiders could be doomed. If he returns and picks up exactly where he left off, the Raiders could be doomed.
In other words, unless Carr returns immediately and looks better than he did the last two weeks, his team might be in trouble.
The Raiders now trail the Broncos by a game, and if the Kansas City Chiefs move to 4-0 on Monday night, there'll be a two-game gap separating them from Oakland. Those opponents also have early-season division tiebreaker edges, which makes the margin for error terrifyingly thin.
|AFC West standings after Sunday|
|Team||2017 record||Division record|
|1. Kansas City Chiefs||3-0||1-0|
|2. Denver Broncos||3-1||1-0|
|3. Oakland Raiders||2-2||0-1|
|4. Los Angeles Chargers||0-4||0-2|
|Pro Football Reference/NFL.com|
Oakland plays the desperate and talented Baltimore Ravens in Week 5, the tough-despite-their-record Los Angeles Chargers in Week 6, the undefeated Chiefs in Week 7 and the 3-1 Buffalo Bills on the road in Week 8. They travel across the country again to play the Miami Dolphins in Week 9, and then, after a Week 10 bye, it's the Patriots, Broncos, New York Giants, Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and Chargers.
Have fun with that, especially if Carr isn't right. And if that talented and expensive offensive line can't get back on track after two horrendous performances in a row. And if a banged-up and vulnerable secondary can't become more reliable. And if top receiver Amari Cooper—who has been plagued by drops to start the season and disappeared completely the last two weeks—doesn't show up soon.
It's still early, but not super-early. Oakland's season has reached the quarter pole, and a team that has already lost the ability to surprise opponents the way it did last year faces an uphill climb to meet offseason expectations.
If trends don't change quickly, it will be right back out of the playoff mix this winter.
Unless the Raiders turn this around, they will serve as a reminder that in the offseason we never know what to expect. And that the sportsbooks usually win.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.