NEW ORLEANS — Even if the Oakland Raiders’ latest visit to the Superdome won’t go down as their most memorable triumph in New Orleans, it certainly has the potential to be a pivotal moment in the apparent resurgence of a proud franchise that hasn’t won much for more than a decade.
The Raiders have been so annually lousy since 2002 that coach Jack Del Rio’s 7-9 record in his first season with the club a year ago was widely seen as a promising development. And because a number of the Raiders’ top players are young, Oakland is becoming a popular dark horse pick to contend for an AFC playoff spot.
Given the resolve and guts the silver-and-black demonstrated in a dramatic, season-opening 35-34 victory over the Saints on Sunday, why not?
The Raiders not only erased a 14-point, second-half deficit on hostile ground. They also overcame another one-touchdown deficit in style, marching 75 yards in the final minutes for a touchdown and a bold, do-or-die, 2-point conversion from Derek Carr to Michael Crabtree with 47 seconds left.
That’ll never measure up to the 1980 Raiders’ Super Bowl triumph in the Big Easy, but it’s the kind of victory that can give a young squad a psychological edge.
“Today really helps them with finding a way to get a win,” Del Rio said after Sunday’s triumph. “This year, we are talking about learning how to win, learning how to close these games, sticking together and making plays at the end. I am really proud of our guys, really happy for them.”
The Saints are also coming off of a 7-9 record last season. They showed potential to improve, but ultimately lost for much the same reason as last year — their defense couldn’t make what Drew Brees and Co. produced hold up.
“There’s a point where you have to dig down and get off the field,” coach Sean Payton said of his defense, noting the unit did not have any sacks or turnovers. “We weren’t able to do so. From then on, you’re just hanging in there, and we didn’t make enough plays.”
Other key developments from the Raiders-Saints season opener:
BALANCED ATTACK: As much as the Raiders might lean on Carr and his top receivers — Crabtree and Amari Cooper — to produce, their running game made the difference in New Orleans. The Raiders rushed for 167 yards, including touchdown runs of 75 yards by rookie Jalen Richard , 6 yards by Latavius Murray and 2 yards by Jamize Olawale.
BETTER BLOCKING: The Saints’ offensive line struggled during an 0-4 preseason, but generally gave Brees the time he needed against Oakland. Brees blamed himself for his fumble on a sack, saying he held the ball too long, and applauded his protection during a 423-yard, four TD performance.
“We’ll be fine,” said veteran right guard Jahri Evans, who was re-acquired last week to shore up the unit. “Drew felt comfortable back there. We got some long passes.”
OPPORTUNISTIC DEFENSE: While the Raiders’ defense sometimes struggled to stop the ever-prolific Brees, they made a number of promising plays, highlighted by Bruce Irvin’s sack and strip of the Saints star QB for a turnover. The Raiders forced another fumble by Saints receiver Willie Snead, but weren’t able to pounce on it. Meanwhile, Oakland held the Saints to 88 yards rushing.
EXPERIENCE DEFICIT: The Saints started the game with a lot of youth and inexperience in the secondary and ended it with even more after second-year starting cornerback Delvin Breaux was taken to the locker room with an undisclosed lower leg injury. With newly acquired veteran cornerback Sterling Moore inactive, the Saints had several defensive backs with no prior regular season NFL experience on the field for Oakland’s winning drive. That included undrafted rookie Ken Crawley, who was covering Crabtree on the winning conversion.
QB PROFICIENCY: The Saints needn’t worry about the 37-year-old Brees’ age and the Raiders can be confident that Carr continues to develop into one of the NFL’s best as he enters his prime. Brees opened his 16th season by eclipsing the 400-yard mark for the 14th time in his career, tying for first all-time with Peyton Manning. He also set personal and team records for longest passing play on a 98-yard TD to Brandin Cooks . Car passed for 319 yards, one TD and a pair of clutch 2-point conversions, first to Cooper to tie the game at 27 and later to Crabtree for the win.