Raw showcases its strengths and weaknesses heading into Survivor Series

By keeping Raw and SmackDown Live completed separated, conflicts like the one between top champions AJ Styles and Kevin Owens on Raw Monday night feel more special. Courtesy of WWE

There were plenty of reasons to love Raw's final episode before Sunday's Survivor Series pay-per-view event. From the very outset, the singular purpose of getting everyone on the same page became the theme for the night, building a number of "strange bedfellows" situations and allowing seemingly conflicted teammates to pick up unexpected victories.

That optimism carried through to the big Raw versus SmackDown confrontation that closed the show too, giving each superstar a reason to care about this match despite the appearance of there being a lack of long-term stakes. SmackDown Live got one of the biggest pops of the night after coming through the crowd, but both teams got over a general sense of unity (which might belie one or more conflicts rearing their ugly heads Sunday, but I digress) during the big throw down.

But the best decision of all on Raw Monday was to have Brock Lesnar and Goldberg keep their hands off each other ahead of their main event showdown Sunday. In recent years, in the build-up to big matches like this one, the WWE has given away far too much, from extended beat downs or back-and-forth fist fights to actually having the same match that's set for the pay-per-view on free TV. By saving that first physical confrontation for Sunday, tension and anticipation is at an all-time high.

For as much as Raw did right on a show that was surely a net positive, there were still a few things that left a bit of a bad taste in the mouth. For all intents and purposes it appears that Roman Reigns' return to superman status is back on track, after he did all of the dirty work before draping a lifeless WWE Universal champion Kevin Owens on top of Sheamus to lock up a pinfall victory for their team. There were a number of other subtle hints, but don't be surprised if after Sunday we get Reigns making a fool of Owens a number of times as they seemingly head toward a champion versus champion conflict.

Did you know that Sunday, fantasy warfare just got real?

Jokes about endlessly repeated taglines and complaints about Reigns aside, before we get too deep into the weeds let's take a closer look at this go-home episode of Monday Night Raw -- at what went right, and what fell flat.

Goldberg and Lesnar in the same ring, and it felt so right

The crowd was as hot for Goldberg as any of the ones he's appeared in front of since his return, and it's far from shocking that Paul Heyman was able to help ionize the crowd so well in a venue that's not Minnesota. Heyman was actually brilliant in poking the vulnerable spots and inciting the crowd, restarting every time he was interrupted and taunting Goldberg from behind the wall of security to build up the tension of Goldberg and Lesnar's first in-ring meeting in well over a decade.

For his part, Goldberg continued his altogether shockingly sharp run on the microphone, which we might thank his occasional Hollywood foray for. He countered each Heyman point by stating the fact that Lesnar never beat him, and continued to bristle at any mention of his family. After laying down the law and demanding that his wife and child not be mentioned again, at the next mention by Heyman, Goldberg shredded his shirt and, for the first time, it became clear that he's still in pretty tremendous shape going into this match.

"Let me spell this out for you," Heyman said, "Live on the WWE Network. Survivor Series. Goldberg, you shall be beaten, victimized and conquered by Brock Lesnar..." and, at that moment, Lesnar shoved down two security guards, seemingly clearing a path for Goldberg. Heyman continued, "...to such an extent that you sir shall be unrecognizable. So unrecognizable, that your son will call Brock Lesnar daddy."

Goldberg snapped and took out the guards one by one, with Lesnar hanging back on the ring apron. When the last three were dispatched, there was a momentary tease that there would be an actual face-to-face showdown, but Lesnar instead stepped down and walked away. Both men never took their eyes off of each other, even for a second, and raised the level of excitement and anticipation for this match as high as it has been.

Whether or not it can possibly live up to the hype, or even remotely resemble the action in WWE2K17 -- and there were no illusions as to the reason for this match, as both Goldberg and Lesnar's nameplates had that logo attached -- is the only question that lingers.

Raw versus SmackDown showdown comes in like a lamb, out like a lion

The opening portion of the Raw vs. SmackDown Live GMs and commissioners fell a little flat, as both sides reiterated similar points to what they've been saying for weeks on their respective shows. There was a nice point-counterpoint about Shane McMahon's participation in the traditional Survivor Series match, but things predictably escalated when the two men's teams came out.

By entering through the crowd, Team SmackDown reiterated their standing as the team of the people. With the brands separated, this direct head-to-head confrontation felt special. You had Owens and AJ Styles touting their own top championship as the real world championship. Chris Jericho put Styles and James Ellsworth on "The List," Bray Wyatt promised to take out his 'creation' Braun Strowman, and Dean Ambrose predictably lit the fuse and started the physical confrontation by attacking Jericho. Seeing Reigns and Seth Rollins stand tall and do a Shield-style powerbomb onto a group that included Ambrose was an interesting final touch as the final Raw before Survivor Series went off the air.

The "State of the WWE Universe" post-show event further hammered home the points each show wanted to make, with the kind of reality-bordering and reality-based statements that have made Talking Smack a must-watch program every week. While there were a few awkward moments, Daniel Bryan's statement that most of SmackDown has improved post-draft while Raw superstars have largely stagnated was one of a dozen different things that rang true. It's 30 minutes long, and if you didn't have the stamina to stay up after the three-hour Raw, it's worth going back to watch it if only to see Bryan and Mick Foley drop truth over and over again and Stephanie McMahon try to steer it back toward the in-storyline matches.

With the focus of SmackDown likely to be largely centered on The Undertaker, Edge, the Intercontinental championship match and other 900th episode festivities, this served as the final official step in the build to Survivor Series.

Hits and misses

The New Day is toeing a dangerous line right now. After winning a few too many one-sided rivalries, it's understandable how they could be a little complacent and put things on auto-pilot a little too much. Their shopping cart full of merchandise highlighted just how much of a following they have, but the strange sexual innuendo of the sock and the unicorn horn showed they can sometimes take their often charming schtick a little too far.

It's actually been kind of nice to see some cracks in the armor as New Day approaches Demolition's all-time WWE tag team title reign record, and that was especially the case in this six-man tag team match. Rollins, Jericho and Strowman proved to have considerable in-ring chemistry as a team, and the result was a match that was far better than most might have expected. All six men looked crisp, and the action was frenetic throughout.

Strowman was the highlight of the match throughout, wreaking havoc on all three members of the New Day and finishing things off with a fantastic-looking running powerslam to finish off Xavier Woods. The partnership was too good to last, though, as Rollins hit a pedigree on Jericho post-match. Jericho tried to embrace his role as captain in both segments that his team was involved in, including an olive branch in the form of matching scarves for Strowman and Rollins. He is simply on a roll when it comes to taking potentially silly ideas and concepts and spinning them into gold, and showing little sign of slowing down.

Just like the six-man tag team match earlier in the night served as a wonderful showcase for Strowman, the women's tag team match was the Nia Jax show. She showed every bit of her physical dominance against both Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair, and did more in this single match to prove her potential as a title contender than months of squash matches against local talent.

Despite flashing some incredible chemistry that dates back to Flair and Banks' earliest days in NXT as part of the BFFs, this was the first match in which partners couldn't wait until the end of the match to go after one another. It was a nice way to display that, even in the face of "brand unity," some conflicts transcend teamwork (even if they ultimately did pull off the victory).

The opening match of the night put Raw's two champions to the test against Sheamus and Cesaro, and it hit all of its intended notes. For his part, Cesaro looked every bit the main event player in this match, both with his in-ring moves (including a crazy corkscrew tope con hilo dive over the top rope onto Reigns and Owens on the outside) and his charisma. He continues to do good work with whatever he's given, but the question of when he will get another shot to prove he can hang with the best (as pointed out by Bryan during the "WWE State of the Universe" special) in a top-level rivalry still lingers.

Reigns and Owens warred throughout the match, with Owens refusing to tag in or tag out for most of the match until he could steal Reigns' thunder, but they did the bare minimum to win the match. A good match, putting over how Reigns puts his team above all when Owens got hit by a brogue kick, he knocked Sheamus out with a spear and then draped the lifeless Owens on top of Sheamus to pick up the victory.

We got a quick match between Sami Zayn and Bo Dallas, but both men really deserved better. Their NXT rivalry is still the peak of Bo's powers in the WWE and made both guys look great. Monday's match was the opposite. Zayn really could have used a more legitimate victory and some real momentum heading into his Survivor Series Intercontinental championship match against Dolph Ziggler (or, theoretically, The Miz, if he wins Tuesday). Dallas, who had been picking up a modicum of momentum in showing an edge of late, shouldn't have served as cannon fodder for Zayn at this particular moment.

Brian Kendrick's words rang hollow but his actions in his match against Sin Cara rang true. The conflict in the locker room, with numerous guys staking legitimate claims to cruiserweight championship matches and questioning Kendrick's chances against Kalisto, was some of the most story building they've done with the Cruiserweight division. That's certainly a welcomed development, and although they still didn't seem to get much of a reaction from an otherwise hyped Buffalo crowd, the more dimension these cruiserweights are given, the better.

There's not a lot that really has to be said about the eight-man tag-team match, but it's about time that a heel tag team like Gallows and Anderson cut off Enzo and Big Cass' "S-A-W-F-T" bit for some heat.