The Oakland Raiders emerged from a drama-filled preseason to win their season opener 24-16 over the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football.
RingCentral Coliseum was rocking to begin the team's final season in Oakland before the franchise moves to Las Vegas. Sprinkled among cheers for current Raiders were several bouts of "F--k AB" chants disparaging the recently departed Antonio Brown.
In the aftermath of Brown's messy divorce, the Raiders offense rolled behind quarterback Derek Carr's 259 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions on 22-of-26 passing.
Meanwhile, Joe Flacco's Denver debut was mostly one to forget despite posting 268 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions on 21-of-31 passing.
Efficient Derek Carr Shows Fans Raiders Offense is Fine Without Antonio Brown
Oakland did not reap any benefits from their March trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers for Brown, who is now happy with the New England Patriots following his requested release Saturday, but Carr didn't let the team's open wound bleed into the regular-season opener.
The 28-year-old Pro Bowler declined to talk to reporters about the situation Saturday, but his play spoke for him against the Broncos. Nobody would have known that Brown monopolized most of Carr's time in the offseason after watching the quarterback's rapport with his other skill players Monday night.
What's most impressive is, like Brown, receiver Tyrell Williams and rookie first-round running back Josh Jacobs are also in their first year with the Raiders. Carr's ability to lead a cohesive offense filled with new faces is promising for the Raiders moving forward.
Williams finished as Oakland's leading receiver with 105 yards and a touchdown on six catches. Signed to a four-year, $44 million contract as a free agent in March, Williams had expectations entering the season regardless of Brown's presence on the team. Now, though, the 27-year-old is Carr's undisputed No. 1 target. Fittingly, he was the first Raider to find the end zone in 2019:
Williams did what was expected of him, but tight end Darren Waller showed why he could turn out to be one of the bigger surprises in the NFL this season—just ask his former Baltimore Ravens teammate Anthony Levine Sr.—with 70 yards on seven catches.
Technically, Waller spent 2018 in Oakland, but he only appeared in four games, notching six catches for 75 yards, and is being implemented in an entirely new way following HBO's Hard Knocks documenting his difficult journey with substance use:
Waller proved his potential on the field and showed off his athleticism with a 25-yarder to dig the Raiders out of a 1st-and-15 hole:
While Carr's receivers proved plenty capable, Jacobs established a presence on the ground in his NFL debut for a rushing offense that ranked 25th last season. The 21-year-old Alabama product carried the ball 23 times for 85 yards and two touchdowns paired with one catch for 28 yards.
It all came together on a crucial five-play, 60-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter to help extend the Raiders' lead to 21-6. The series was bookended by Jacobs—taking a short pass up the middle for 28 yards and punching it in from four yards out—with a five-yard catch and 24-yard catch from Williams in between.
Following the game, Carr acknowledged the abrupt change to his offense with ESPN's Dianna Russini:
"Let's get the elephant out of the room: Antonio is no longer with us. We love Antonio, we wish him the best, but we knew with the guys we had in our locker room, we already had a good football team. And if he wanted to be part of it, awesome. If he didn't, awesome. You know, we're gonna come out here and we still have to play a game.
"But the guys in this locker room, the guys that competed during training camp, all offseason, we grinded, we came together, we're a family. And this family is pretty special, and I'm glad to be a part of it."
Carr also noted that he felt his new weapons showed people "they're better than everyone else thought they were." Oakland can't instantly replace what Brown would have added, but if this unit continues to grow together, the Raiders may be able to salvage their season.
Vic Fangio, Joe Flacco Get Failing Grade in Broncos Debut
Well, it can only go up from here.
The Broncos came within eight points with 2:15 remaining in regulation, but ultimately, there were too many miscues from the previous 57 minutes and 45 seconds to overcome.
Fangio made several questionable and costly decisions in his first game as an NFL head coach, including a poorly managed two-minute drill to end the first half.
Perhaps the biggest came with 8:39 left in the game with his team trailing 21-6. The Broncos were facing a 4th-and-9 at the Oakland 21-yard line, and Fangio opted to kick a field goal, which drew ire on Twitter and played a role in the team's loss:
A Flacco-led comeback almost bailed out Fangio, as the veteran quarterback took advantage of Raiders backup cornerback Trayvon Mullen, who replaced starter Gareon Conley after he had to be carted off in the third quarter with a scary neck injury:
Emmanuel Sanders beat Mullen to catch a one-yard back-shoulder touchdown pass from Flacco and bring the Broncos within nine. However, Fangio decided to kick the extra point rather than go for two.
Flacco's performance prior to the Broncos' final scoring drive was modest at best. To be fair, he was under constant pressure and sacked three times by a defense that managed a record-low 13 sacks all of last season and hadn't posted three sacks in a game since Dec. 10, 2017, per the Associated Press' Josh Dubow.
Although, Flacco looked particularly slow on one of those sacks and at least one of them was solely his fault.
Prior to that, down 14-3 with 3:45 left in the third quarter, Flacco hit DaeSean Hamilton right in the numbers in the end zone, but the 24-year-old receiver inexplicably dropped what would have been a sure touchdown that could have potentially swung the momentum. The Broncos, again, were forced to settle for a field goal instead.
It is worth noting that adjustments seemed to be made as the contest wore on. Denver's defense improved, which is Fangio's bread and butter, and Flacco got his new squad back in the game at least in part because of Conley's injury.
However, for a franchise on its third head coach since 2016 and fifth quarterback in the same timeframe, the Broncos' chances to contend live or die by Fangio and Flacco.
It won't get any easier for Flacco, either, as the Chicago Bears' vaunted defense that Fangio led from 2015 to 2018 will visit Mile High next week.
The Raiders (1-0) will host the Kansas City Chiefs (1-0) on Sunday, while the Broncos (0-1) will host the Chicago Bears (0-1).