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Raiders 2016 strength of schedule tougher than it appears, but Raiders tougher

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The Oakland Raiders have been handed more than their fair share of difficult schedules over the years. This time they're ahead of the curve as they roll into the 2016 season.

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The NFL's "strength of schedule" formula has been a sore point for Raider Nation over the years.During the recent lean, non-playoff years, the team seemed to inexplicably draw what many would consider a first-place schedule.

For example, in 2013 the unit slumped to 4-12 under two head coaches, finishing fourth in the division. Despite this poor showing, the Raiders didn't receive a last-place itinerary, but rather the No. 1 toughest schedule in the entire NFL.

They did have to face three division opponents in Denver, Kansas City and San Diego who had all made the playoffs the year before, fair enough. However, non-division games included the 12-4 New England Patriots, who advanced to the AFC Conference Championship Game, the 10-6 Arizona Cardinals, 12-4 San Francisco 49ers, and Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks.

A lineup like that could make even the most stable mind a tad paranoid.

But, moving forward to the 2016 season, the "man behind the curtain" responsible for selecting opponents has done a reasonable job, on the surface. Oakland plays a .500 schedule with opponents posting an even 128-128 total win-loss record.

But will the Silver and Black really be playing a middling schedule?

Outside the AFC West, the middle of the road opponents are just that. The New Orleans Saints at 7-9, Atlanta Falcons at 8-8, and Indianapolis Colts at 8-8, are much the same teams, in terms of talent, as last season with a few gains and losses in free agency. None drafted overwhelming impact players. On the other hand, Oakland will face the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers, which means the Raiders face both Super Bowl teams, again.

The teams that make the 2016 schedule more competitive than at first blush are Tennessee, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay.

The Titans absolutely killed it in the draft, selecting potential impact players at three key positions of need — offensive line (Jack Conklin), defensive line (Kevin Dodd) and running back (Derrick Henry). Despite having a 3-13 record last season, this Marcus Mariota-led team has a much improved roster.

Likewise, the Jaguars have transformed their roster. The organization's free agent signings were second only to G.M. Reggie McKenzie's wizardry, as they landed defensive end Malik Jackson, left tackle Kelvin Beachum, safety Tashaun Gipson and running back Chris Ivory, among others. Couple that with highly rated draft picks Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Myles Jack and Jacksonville appears much improved, at least on paper.

The Buccaneers also made significant off-season advancements, signing Pro Bowl safety Brent Grimes, guard J.R. Sweezy, and defensive end Robert Ayers. They also drafted a top rated cornerback in Vernon Hargreaves and a productive pass rusher in Noah Spence.

Fortunately, McKenzie may have trumped them all with his free agent signings and draft picks such as franchise quarterback Derek Carr and PFF's No. 6 overall rated player Khalil Mack. Adding this year's first round pick Karl "The Hitman" Joseph to a masterfully improved secondary should elevate the Raiders to an upper-echelon team.

Although Oakland plays a tougher schedule than it appears on the surface, the Silver and Black have out-paced their 2016 opponents in terms of talent acquisitions. Basically, when all is said and done, the Raiders are a first-rate team playing a first-rate schedule.

Game on!