Will Derek Carr keep his professional trajectory moving upward? Can Drew Brees maintain his level of excellence behind center at age 37?
Two quarterbacks at opposite ends of their careers will square off when the Oakland Raiders travel to Louisiana to face the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. Brees has turned the Saints into perennial playoff contenders in his 10 seasons with the team, though they've missed out on the postseason the last two years due to a leaky defense.
Carr hasn't been nearly as successful in his two years as a pro, but he led the Raiders to a four-win improvement last fall. Another season of big gains would return Oakland to the postseason for the first time since playing in Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002.
That journey starts with a Week 1 trip to Louisiana. Carr will stare down a New Orleans defense ranked dead last in points allowed last season. The Saints added veterans like Nick Fairley and James Laurinaitis in free agency before spending draft capital on standouts like defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and safety Vonn Bell in hopes of digging the unit out of the league's basement. However, Rankins is on injured reserve and will miss at least the first six weeks of the season.
The defense has the tough task of stopping Carr and top wideout Amari Cooper to prove 2016 will be any different that last fall's forgettable season. But the Saints at least have one person around who is pretty familiar with Carr: Their defensive coordinator is Dennis Allen, who was Carr's first head coach in the NFL.
Both teams, however, downplayed the connection.
"Hopefully we know Derek based on all the film study and all the games, just like they would know Drew," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "I don’t think that factors in, really."
"Two years makes a lot of difference," said Carr. "I had some definite weaknesses my rookie year that I had to work on and hopefully I’ve gotten better at those."
Oakland hasn't finished in the top half of the league's major offensive or defensive team stats since 2011. This offseason, though, the Raiders opened up their checkbook to support young stars Carr, Cooper, and defensive stalwart Khalil Mack. They signed standouts Bruce Irvin, Kelechi Osemele, and Sean Smith for a combined cost of $133.5 million. Owner Mark Davis pushed his chips to the center of the table this offseason to gamble on a return to the playoffs. After all, it'll certainly be easier to sell a move to Las Vegas with a winning team than a mediocre one.
New Orleans will try to shed a postseason drought of its own after finishing 7-9 the past two seasons. Despite re-signing Brees to a five-year extension earlier this week, the Saints' window of opportunity for returning to football's biggest stage is closing faster than they'd like. A look at the team's leading passers before Brees arrived returns few proven winners; losing the most important player in franchise history will only serve to spin the Saints back to futility.
The quest to add another Super Bowl ring as Brees nears 40 years old will start with a home contest against the Raiders.
How to watch
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Location: Superdome, New Orleans
Announcers: Chris Myers, Ronde Barber
Online: NFL Game Pass