It’s the football question I’ve been asked the most over the last few months, and the reasons why are obvious. It represents the kind of fruit that hangs even lower than both of these teams figure to in the standings, and the query is insulting to both clubs.
The 49ers haven’t had a great offseason — OK, it’s been hideous — but the last time they had a worse record than their cross-bay rivals was 2010, and they’ve won fewer games than Oakland in just two of the last 12 seasons. 49ers fans have gotten used to looking down at that team in Oakland, and the “Faithful” cringe at the idea that this could change in 2015.
Meanwhile, the Raiders can’t exactly be proud of how people are looking at San Francisco’s train wreck and saying derisively, “Oh man, here’s how badly they screwed things up in Santa Clara: the Niners are gonna be worse than the Raiders!” It’s tough enough to constantly finish with three or four wins without also being labeled as the benchmark for NFL failure, representing the depths to which no other team wants to sink.
It’s also a football question that can’t be answered with any sort of certainty until Week 4 or 5 at the earliest. But hey, people spend hours predicting the NFL season before an actual game kicks off. CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco actually went as far as to predict the score of every single game this season.
(Just imagine how tedious this chore would become, predicting 256 regular season games plus the playoffs before we know who’ll get injured, how good the rookies are, and which veterans will fall off a cliff. He probably started off with great intentions, too. “I’ll look at points and yards per game from last year, divided by a percentage of players who left, multiplied by draft grade …”
Then you know his mind started spinning by the time he got to Week 13, and he spent the rest of that night ignoring stats and making decisions based on internal monologues like, “Hmmm, I don’t know. Let’s go with 24-20. Actually, how many 24-20s do I have in this thing? Better make it 26-23.”
In case you’re wondering, Prisco has the 49ers at 4-12 after starting 0-8 and 1-11, before avoiding the No. 1 overall pick in 2016 with wins over the Browns, Bengals and Rams in December. He predicts the Raiders will finish 3-13 and lose their last seven games. Also, none of this matters.)
Anyway, I’m sick of getting asked the question in the headline and having no answer besides, “Well, the 49ers certainly seem to be on a downward trend, while the Raiders have a legit star on defense and seem to be on the upswing. Anything’s possible!” So, I’ve decided to figure out a few ways to muddle my way through a prediction on the matter. Why not, right? This is kind of what we’re left with after baseball stops mattering around here and both pro football teams appear to be mediocre.
Here’s the problem before the games start, since we don’t really know anything about anything just yet. How do we go about figuring out this whole 49ers-or-Raiders thing?
Based on these, it’s a relatively easy choice.
The odds makers (Pinnacle in this case, but they all seem to agree) give San Francisco the edge.
- The 49ers’ over/under on regular season wins is at 6.5.
- The Raiders sit at 5.5 (the lowest o/u in the league, along with Jacksonville and Tennessee).
Football Outsiders played out the season 25,000 times based on their fancy projections:
- The 49ers had a “Mean Wins” total of 7.0.
- The Raiders finished with 6.3 “Mean Wins” after 25,000 simulations.
Just a note on the FO projections — only two teams had over 10 “Mean Wins” — New England (10.6) and Seattle (10.7). Only one team had fewer than six — Washington (5.8). There will probably be a few teams with 11 or more wins, as well as some teams with five or fewer, but I guess “regression to the mean” is something people say for a reason.
49ers vs. Raiders advantages/disadvantages
This is just about impossible, since these teams are awfully similar.
- No one is willing to bet the farm (i.e. an early-round fantasy draft choice) on either team’s quarterback.
- Both starting running backs are young, big, quick and unproven.
- Boldin/Smith/Ellington isn’t discernibly better than Cooper/Crabtree/Streater. In fact, the 49ers receivers could end up being less effective.
- Who knows with either group of tight ends?
- 49ers’ offensive line looks pretty weak, but it’s not like the Raiders will maul opposing defensive lines like the late-’80s Hogs.
- Both teams’ defenses are built around outstanding linebackers. One of them is coming off a major injury, and the other is now a defensive end.
- Both defensive lines look fairly strong.
- Depth is lacking at cornerback (Raiders) and outside linebacker (49ers).
Alright, fine. We’ll do it this way.
- Quarterback: 49ers (Kap has more playoff wins and experience, plus his stats were better in 2014)
- Running back: Push
- Wide receivers: Push
- Tight ends: 49ers (slight edge)
- Offensive line: Raiders (slight edge)
- Defensive line: Raiders (Mack gives them the edge now that he’s an edge rusher)
- Linebackers: 49ers (Bowman gives them a slight edge here)
- Cornerbacks: 49ers (only because the Raiders are in deep trouble here)
- Safeties: 49ers
- Kick returns/coverage: ???
- Kicking/punting: ???
- Coaching: Raiders (Jack Del Rio has a lot more experience at this level)
After all that, if we’re going to look at the Raiders and say they’re likely to win more games than the 49ers, we’re going to have to look at something more tangible than “momentum from last year.”
Big picture stuff
The quarterbacks could go either way in 2015, both teams have new coaches, and neither club can be counted on to move the ball through the air or stop opposing quarterbacks from picking them apart. The 49ers fell apart at the end of last season, losing four of their last five games. The Raiders won three of their last six games after starting out 0-10, but in their last three losses they were outscored 130-27.
Strength of Schedule
There’s no surefire way to do this, but basing these on the Vegas lines and Football Outsiders projections seems like a better plan than looking at the 2014 standings. But I’ll include last year’s records, just because.
Strength of schedule based on 2014 records
- 49ers’ opponents: 143-112-1 (.561), nine games against playoff teams
- Raiders’ opponents: 139-116-1 (.545), seven games against playoff teams
Average over/under (2015 regular season wins — Pinnacle)
- 49ers’ opponents: 8.7
- Raiders’ opponents: 8.4
Average “Mean Wins” from Football Outsiders
- 49ers’ opponents: 8.3
- Raiders’ opponents: 8.2
This really isn’t helping. The 49ers might have a more difficult schedule, but not by a whole lot. Plus, we always know quite a bit less than we think when it comes to what will transpire in an upcoming NFL season.
For instance, no one thought the Cowboys would win 12 games last year, and many (myself included) thought Dallas might end up with a top-10 draft pick after the 49ers beat them in Week 1. Many “experts” had the Saints and 49ers making the playoffs. This science is about as inexact as you can find.
Scorchin’ Hot Takes
- The Raiders’ quarterback is much better than the 49ers’ quarterback (if we’re judging based on how they played when these two teams faced last year).
- The 49ers will collapse after losing so many key players.
- Wait, didn’t the Raiders win 11 games … over the past three seasons?
- The NFC West isn’t what it once was.
- The AFC West isn’t what it once was.
- The Niners have no home field advantage.
- The Raiders have no permanent home.
- The 49ers will miss Jim Harbaugh a lot more than the Raiders will miss Dennis Allen and Tony Sparano.
- The 49ers’ black uniforms prove once and for all that they have Raiders envy.
Now my head is swimming worse than Prisco’s. My gut tells me the 49ers will finish a game ahead of the Raiders in the totally made up, playoff-free, Bay Area Sports Media Blather standings. I’ll guess 6-10 for the 49ers, 5-11 for the Raiders, with 8-8 ceilings (OK, maybe 9-7) and 3-13 floors for both teams.