There's hope in Oakland for the first time in a while. Names people recognize, a host of new faces and depth that Raider fans have been dreaming about.
And then, we look at the schedule.
With a team many think can finally compete, the Raiders were dealt a devastating blow before the season will even begin: the toughest slate of opponents in the league. Based on 2013 win percentages, the Raiders will play the toughest schedule in 2014, with 9 games against playoff teams (which doesn't even include the 10-win Cardinals), including Buffalo Bills, @ Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans
Anytime you get Cleveland on your schedule, it's a good day. While it's a road game, I think Oakland is improved enough to think they can travel to Cleveland and beat the Browns.
As for Buffalo and Miami, both teams were better than Oakland in 2013, but with the drastic improvements in Oakland, I think both games will see Oakland as a favorite (even if it's a smaller spread). Like Oakland, Miami has been active in free agency, and so they will probably pose the biggest threat of the three teams listed here.
Finally, there are the Texans. The best team in the AFC two seasons ago and the worst team last season. With no real answer at quarterback, it's safe to assume they'll be closer to the 2013 version than the 2014 version. Plus, you know Matt Schaub will be amped for this one.
Games Oakland could win: @ St. Louis Rams, @ Kansas City Chiefs, Kansas City Chiefs, @ San Diego Chargers, San Diego Chargers, @ New York Jets
I think the Chiefs and Chargers are still slightly ahead of Oakland in the division (at least until Oakland can get all of their new players to gel), but in rivalry games anything can happen. I think it's feasible Oakland could win all four of those games or lose all four of those games. More likely, though, I think they split the series with both teams.
If the Rams and Jets played in Oakland, those two games might have moved up into the "should-win" category, but on the road I think Oakland will be slight underdogs in both cases. Many people sleep on the Rams, but Jeff Fisher has built an impressive team that often goes overlooked in the loaded NFC West.
As for the Jets, many people forget they went 8-8 last season and in Geno Smith's second season (and with Michael Vick in the wings), the Jets should be just as good, if not improved.
Games Oakland will be major underdogs in: @ Denver Broncos, Denver Broncos, @ New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers, @ Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals
It hurts to admit it, but beating the Broncos — even at home — would be a massive upset for the Raiders. Obviously, the games here aren't impossible to win, just unlikely.
I think playing at New England and at Seattle (one of the toughest places to play in the league) is a death sentence for most teams, and so those two games could feature double-digit spreads.
That brings us to San Francisco and Arizona — the two most winnable games on this list. A home game against the cross-town rivals is winnable, although Oakland will be overmatched from a talent perspective. Like I said above, though, a rivalry game like this means anything could happen.
Many people will probably be surprised to see Arizona in this category, but remember — the Cardinals won 10 games last season in (arguably) the toughest division in football. Like the Rams, they've flown under the radar for most people, but the Cardinals defense is for real and should give Oakland fits.
In looking at these three categories, it's easy to see that Oakland has a tough road ahead of them this year. Even if Oakland improves dramatically, which they should, it's not unreasonable to assume this team could fail to win 9 games for the 12th consecutive season. In fact, I think even getting to .500 would be a major accomplishment for this team considering the schedule.