By Steve Corkran
Wednesday, March 16th, 2011 at 10:39 pm in Oakland Raiders.
The NFL confirmed that it intends to release its schedule in mid-April or so, as usual, regardless where it stands in its battle against the players in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.
Therefore, fans at least will have something to chew on in lieu of free agency and offseason workouts being on hold until a new deal is hammered out.
With that in mind, it’s worth taking an early look at the road the Raiders face if they are to end their eight-year string of missing the playoffs.
On the surface, it’s a much tougher path for the Raiders in 2011 than the one they traveled last season.
The Raiders played the four teams in the NFC West and AFC South last season, in addition to games against the Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers. Next season, the Raiders get the NFC North and the AFC East, as well as conference games against the Texans and Cleveland Browns.
The Raiders have every right to feel confident about their six games against their AFC West foes: the San Diego Chargers, Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs. After all, they beat all three teams twice last season, and none of those teams figures to be on many lists of Super Bowl contenders.
The problems lie in games against the New England Patriots, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.
The Packers are fresh from a Super Bowl victory over a Steelers team that whipped the Raiders. The Patriots went a league-best 14-2 in the regular season last year. The Jets lost a close game to the Steelers in the AFC Championship game. The Bears lost to the Packers in the NFC Championship game. And the Dolphins throttled the Raiders at the Coliseum last season.
Of more concern is the fact the Raiders lost to the Texans – minus star wide receiver Andre Johnson — at the Coliseum last season, and they have never beaten the Texans on the road.
Games against the Browns and Detroit Lions used to be the kind teams chalked up as easy victories. Not anymore. The Browns, who gave the Patriots one of their losses, and Lions showed signs of improvement last season and should be even better this season.
Yet, it’s obvious by now that it’s risky to place too much stock in results from the previous season. It’s not uncommon for Super Bowl teams to miss the playoffs the following season. And there’s a long list of teams that made the quantum leap from doormat to Super Bowl team in one season in recent years.
The Raiders are counting upon using an 8-8 season in 2010 as a springboard to the playoffs next season. Hence the reason, they have signed or offered contracts to most of their top players who are prospective free agents.
And, why not? The Raiders rattled off several impressive victories in 2009 and won more games last season than they had since 2002. The thinking goes that, another year’s experience for the younger players, keeping the core of the team intact and the promotion of Hue Jackson to coach will be enough to make the difference.
It might be easy to discount what the Raiders accomplished last season, given six of their victories came against teams in a division that won more games (31 combined) than only the AFC South (30, including four against the Raiders) and NFC West (25, including two against the Raiders), and their two other victories came against the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks in, by far, the weakest division.
The same can’t be said if the Raiders finish with a winning record or make the playoffs this season. There are few easy games – the three games against the Buffalo Bills and Broncos are the lone qualifiers, at this point — this time around on a scheduled littered with tough opponents from top to bottom.