The Raiders haven’t played a game yet and are already riding a roller coaster guaranteed to give you motion sickness. This Antonio Brown soap opera is a pure, unavoidable distraction that will surely leave a dark cloud over Monday night’s opener against Denver.
Unless, of course, he ball's out. Head coach Jon Gruden said Brown is expected to play the season opener, less than 24 hours after the Raiders were mulling a suspension without pay for conduct detrimental to the team or simply rendering inactive while on the 53-man roster. Punitive action was expected following a Wednesday altercation with general manager Mike Mayock, but a reportedly tearful apology may have smoothed things over with the team paying a handsome sum for his services.
Brown is by far the team's best all-around player, and the Raiders need him so.
The Raiders are expected to finish third or fourth in the AFC West, and most believe they’ll hover around .500 at season’s end. To borrow baseball parlance, Brown’s wins over replacement would be high, maybe even worth a few on his own.
The Raiders’ postseason prospects will hinge on Brown’s availability and engagement. Just because the plan is for him to play Monday night, doesn't mean the drama surrounding him is over. If he plays at a gold-jacket level, the Raiders could surprise some folks. Let’s take a make a case for how the Raiders could make the postseason and another for why they won’t.
How the Raiders can earn a postseason spot
Everything has to go right. The Raiders have to get hot and lucky this fall, because there’s no natural path to the postseason in a top-heavy AFC West, with a rebuilding roster and a superstar on the outs.
A great quarterback can be a great equalizer, and Derek Carr seems primed for a breakout season. The veteran is working with a vastly upgraded supporting cast, giving him a real chance to recapture his old form. He’s certainly capable of that if he’s protected well, and his penchant for fourth-quarter comebacks could help the Raiders exceed expectations.
Carr needs his best receiver in the fold, and Brown will have to be available and productive if the Raiders are to surprise folks and earn a wild card spot. Brown has to be awesome all the time, and a positive locker-room presence he hasn't been to this point.
The Raiders will also need the pass rush to exceed expectations, with young first-round draft pick Clelin Ferrell leading the charge. If the Raiders can sling it and prevent others from doing so, strange things can happen. Maybe even a wild card berth. Maybe.
Why the Raiders season will end with the regular season
Making the playoffs is a long shot to be sure. Finishing outside the playoff bracket but sneaking seven or eight wins could still be considered a sign of progress for a 4-12 team in 2018.
There are ways to win and lose the season without making the playoffs, but there are plenty of reasons why making the postseason would be pretty darn tough.
This AB drama is a big reason why. It’s already a hindrance, and missing him for any stretch is a dream killer.
The Raiders defensive line is better than last year’s disaster, but it’s still an offseason’s worth of acquisitions away from being scary. The roster is thin at a few spots, making it hard to survive inevitable injuries throughout the course of the season.
And then there’s that pesky schedule. The Raiders start with the Broncos and Chiefs at home, before playing five straight on the road. Good freaking luck.
The Broncos opener might be the easiest of the bunch, and Brown’s out for sure. That sets the Raiders back out of the gate, and a series of early failures could send the season down the drain early.