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.
Before Thursday’s game, 147 individual NFL players had intercepted passes in 2017. None of them wear silver and black.
And now the Raiders are going to give the 49ers a head start in the Great Race. For once, there will be a reason for their lack of interceptions: This is their bye week.
While the Raiders are resting, the 49ers will have a legitimate chance of winning at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday. You’re waiting for a punchline, but I’m serious. They can win. And I don’t mean a moral victory like the ones they scored against the Seahawks and Rams earlier this year, but the kind that could put a 1 in the first column in the standings.
Let me tell you about the New York Giants. They were an 11-5 playoff team last year, Ben McAdoo’s first as head coach. This year, everything has gone rancid. Other than a curiously decisive win at Denver, the Giants haven’t been able to beat anyone. The Rams scorched them for 51 points last week. The week before that, New York scored 7 against Seattle. Both of those games were at home.
Quarterback Eli Manning, who has won two Super Bowls, looks ready to join older brother Peyton as a shamed Papa John’s spokesman. Eli, 36, is on pace to be sacked 38 times, which would be the second most of his career. His top two receivers, Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall, are lost for the year with injuries.
As the season deteriorates, McAdoo seems to be losing his grip on the locker room. He has suspended each of his starting cornerbacks, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins, for separate violations of team rules. USA Today ranks McAdoo No. 1 in this week’s “NFL hot seat rankings.” An article on the New York Daily News website Wednesday was titled, “Ben McAdoo still talking about the sex-crazed lion as Giants sink to 1-7.”
So you’re saying there’s a chance? Yes, I’m saying there’s a chance. And Vegas seems to agree. The Giants are favored by only 1 point in Sunday’s game, which means the 49ers could be a blocked field-goal attempt away from that elusive victory.
If the Niners come up short against the Giants, they will relinquish their head start with a Week 11 bye. But the Raiders will be hard-pressed to take advantage as they “host” the Patriots in Mexico City that weekend. If they haven’t intercepted Cutler, Joe Flacco or Josh McCown in 2017, why in the world would they be able to break through against Tom Brady?
In other words, this competition may continue to delight us for weeks. One team trying desperately to win a game, the other hoping merely for an airborne turnover.
If only the AFC West and NFC West were playing one another this year. You can picture the Raiders and 49ers doing battle at Levi’s Stadium or the Oakland Coliseum. The Niners are poised for an upset as the clock winds down, when future star quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo gets a wicked thought and, instead of taking a knee, lobs a pass into the end zone. Raiders rookie Obi Melifonwu, incensed at the lack of respect and unversed in dropping things, catches the ball and holds it to his chest. Game over. Niners win, and Oakland gets its interception in the very same moment.
That won’t happen, so we must content ourselves with a couple more wobbly laps and an eventual winner in the Great Race.
You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.