NFL Season Preview – Niners Super Bowl Bound Again?

The NFL season kicked off on Thursday night in historical fashion, with Peyton Manning tossing seven touchdowns, leading the Denver Broncos to a 49-27 win over the defending champion Baltimore Ravens. Here in the Bay Area, both the Raiders and 49ers kick off their seasons on Sunday, though the teams appear to be headed in opposite directions.

The 49ers are playing their last season at Candlestick Park and are favored in the NFC. Coming off a disappointing loss in the Super Bowl last year, San Francisco is bringing back much of the core from that team. The offense is once again led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The third year player was a revelation last year, filling in for an injured Alex Smith and never relinquishing the job.

The offensive line and running back Frank Gore are also back. The big questions on offense revolve around who is going to catch Kaepernick’s passes? Lead receiver Michael Crabtree is expected to miss most of the regular season after an Achilles injury. To replace Crabtree, the team traded for Anquan Boldin, who starred in the Super Bowl last year for the Ravens. They also have Vernon Davis, who is expected to play a bigger role as starting tight end. However, the rest of the receiving core remains a work in progress.

The Niners were led by their defense for much of last season and it is expected to once again be pretty stout. Key players like Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are all back. Like the team’s offense, there is a major question mark, and that comes in the secondary. It’s the one area of the defense that doesn’t have a truly standout player, although rookie safety Eric Reid could become that guy.

The 49ers toughest competition in the NFC might come from within their own division, as many expect the Seattle Seahawks to once again be a major contender. The 49ers kick off the season on Sunday as they host the Green Bay Packers.

On the opposite side of the Bay, the Oakland Raiders have undergone major changes and unfortunately, the term “rebuilding” has often been used for their roster. Gone are many high-priced veterans, replaced by rookies and lower-priced “stop gap” free agents. In their second year with the team, head coach Dennis Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie are trying to remake the roster to fit their vision.

Quarterback Terrelle Pryor is the team’s somewhat surprising starter. He is light on experience and there are major questions on whether he is actually a starting caliber NFL quarterback. His one advantage – his athleticism to move out of the pocket, a necessity as the team’s offensive line was hit with a major injury, with the loss of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Darren McFadden is back as the starting running back but questions linger on whether he can remain healthy for a full season.

The defense has holes as well, even with the return of former star Charles Woodson. An infusion of youth (rookie CB DJ Hayden and fellow rookie LB Sio Moore) can only be seen as a positive on this side of the ball, as management tries to build from the ground up.

While the Raiders may surprise this year, the team will also go through some growing pains, as expected for a young squad. The one question that remains is whether Allen and McKenzie will be around long enough to see the fruits of their labor. Oakland opens on the road in Indianapolis on Sunday.

What are your predictions for the 49ers and Raiders this season?