I hope you’re enjoying the view, because we are all being treated to one of the great races in sports right now. It’s as though 1973 Secretariat were competing against 1920 Man O’ War, if only Secretariat were running in warm caramel and Man O’ War were blindfolded and released in a maze constructed of fresh hay.
This is the race captivating Bay Area football fans in 2017: Can the 49ers win a football game before the Raiders intercept a pass?
San Francisco, you might have read, has started the Kyle Shanahan Era at 0-9 and counting. Meanwhile, up I-880 a bit, the Raiders are the first team in NFL history to play the first nine games of a season without recording an interception. Which team will be the first to ditch its zero? Because one of them surely will. Won’t they?
On its face, the question seems like a no-brainer. Of course the Raiders will get there first. All they have to do is intercept a stinking pass. And you don’t necessarily have to be Deion Sanders to do that in the NFL. Interceptions sometimes occur when a linebacker tips a pass and the ball lands right in the paws of a surprised defensive back, or when a panicked quarterback simply tosses it to the closest fat guy at the line.
In other words, accidents happen.
And one of them could happen to the Raiders.
On the other side of the equation, winning a game in the National Football League is never easy. Even the good teams struggle to “eat Ws,” as Jameis Winston (who does not play for a good team) might say. For a squad like Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers, who were bad to begin with and whose injured reserve runs as long as the ingredients list on a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, victories might as well be unicorns.
All of which adds up to a huge advantage for the Raiders. Ah, but not so fast. There are extenuating circumstances.
The first is that the Raiders defenders have proven themselves to be historically, artfully bad at catching opposing passes. All of them are currently tied for the team interception lead, including cornerback Sean Smith (zero), corner David Amerson (zero), safety Karl Joseph (zero) — we’ll just stop there.
When a streak goes on this long, it’s tempting to point to all of the near misses suffered, literally, at the hands of Oakland pass defenders.
But in all honesty, there haven’t been so many close calls. Oh, we can think of a few. Safety Reggie Nelson dropped a sure interception against Washington in Week 3. Amped-up rookie Shalom Luani failed to gain control of a Bills pass that hit him in Week 8. All in all, though, Raiders defenders tend not to be close enough to opposing receivers to claim possession.
Consider that Oakland’s opponents in 2017 have a cumulative passer rating of 110.5, the highest mark in the league. Basically, every quarterback who faces the Raiders this season is better than Aaron Rodgers, who has a career rating of 104.1.
Scanning the game books quickly, I see that the Raiders have not faced Aaron Rodgers nine times in 2017. In fact, last week they went up against Miami’s Jay Cutler, whose face was created by God specifically to reflect the sour reaction of throwing a pick. Cutler has twice led the NFL in interceptions, including a career-high 26 with Chicago in 2009. Playing with cracked ribs against the Raiders, he completed 34 of 42 passes for 311 yards, three touchdowns and … checking … no interceptions.