The Raiders made an amazing transformation from a three-win team in 2014 to one of the AFC’s best teams a year ago. If not for getting swept by the rival Chiefs, they might have won the AFC West crown, settling instead for a wild card spot at 12-4. Derek Carr continued his ascension to the elite quarterback level, finishing second behind Tom Brady in passer rating in the AFC as he doled out 1,000 yard receiving seasons to Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. Khalil Mack earned NFL defensive MVP honors for his 11-sack season to lead the defense. Carr’s late-season injury doomed the team’s postseason chances, as they went out meekly in the first round in a 27-14 loss to Houston.
Like the Raiders, the Titans missed out on a division crown due to a tiebreaker, but, in their case, it also kept them out of the playoffs. Still, there were a lot of positives for Tennessee in 2016, especially on offense. DeMarco Murray proved a great addition to a powerhouse running game, amassing 1,287 yards on the ground. Quarterback Marcus Mariota made huge strides as well in his second season, throwing 26 touchdown passes. The Titans were lacking on defense, however, finishing 30th in passing defense despite tying for sixth in the league in sacks.
New Weapons – One of the areas where the Titans tried to improve in the offseason was their receiving corps. Mariota had to rely heavily on tight end Delanie Walker a year ago, because his wideout options were scarce after Rishard Matthews. That’s why the team brought in Eric Decker from New York and drafted Corey Davis with their first pick. The variety of options makes it less likely that the Raiders can put eight men in the box to take away the running game.
Beast Mode is Back – The Raiders had a relatively quiet offseason, but the news that Marshawn Lynch was coming out of retirement to play for his hometown team certainly made headlines. The Raiders still have talented young backs Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington to get touches, so don’t expect the 35 carries Marshawn of old. But if the team gets a lead late against Tennessee, it will be interesting to watch if Beast Mode goes into full effect to salt the game away.
The Next Generation – As guys like Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and others get closer to retirement, the NFL need not worry too much about the next batch of great quarterbacks. The two on display in this game certainly are making strides to that rarefied air. They do it differently, with Mariota adding the running element and Carr tossing bombs in the mode of Raider greats like Ken Stabler. An opening week showdown could be in the offing between these two young guns.
Matchup to watch
Titans OT Taylor Lewan vs. Raiders DE Khalil Mack – Talk about strength against strength. These 2014 first-round picks have quickly risen to the top of their profession and now will go head-to-head for much of the afternoon on Sunday. Mack is such a talent that very few teams take him on without a double-team, but Lewan might just attempt to handle him all by his lonesome. In any case, it should make for a fascinating clash.
Fantasy football tip
RB Derrick Henry – The Titans figure to work Henry more and more into the offense this season. For one, it will keep Murray fresh. But more than that, the former Alabama star is a special talent who showed glimpses of greatness in limited time. He also does a lot of work near the goal line, which means he could provide value even if he doesn’t tote it 20 times.
Prediction: Tennessee Titans 24-23 Oakland Raiders
One of the best matchups of opening week should go right down to the wire. Give the home team the advantage in this case, with the Titans sending an early-season message about their potential for the year ahead with a tight win.
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