A promising season, following more than a decade of hopeless falls, took an ugly turn on the Oakland Raiders in late December when quarterback Derek Carr went down with a broken right leg.
Carr is recovering ahead of schedule and eyeing another big season in 2017. That’s the best news for the Raiders, who were a lost cause without him.
If there is any negative news, it’s the Raiders’ schedule that was unveiled Thursday. Oakland faces what calculates as the NFL’s fourth-toughest strength of schedule that includes 10 games against teams that finished above .500 last season.
The Raiders, who went 7-9 in 2015 and finished 12-4 last year, would do well to win 10 games. A bit of regression is anticipated. And keeping Carr healthy is obviously imperative.
“Without Carr, you saw what happened and you saw the difference in this team,” VSiN oddsmaker Vinny Magliulo said. “Are the Raiders going to be as good as they were last year? That’s one of the questions you have to ask.”
The wheels fell off without Carr. After getting demolished 24-6 at Denver in Week 17, the Raiders went out of the AFC playoffs with a whimper in a loss at Houston.
Carr passed for 28 touchdowns with six interceptions while emerging as a Most Valuable Player candidate. He might soon welcome former Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch out of retirement and into the Raiders’ backfield.
But aside from pass-rushing force Khalil Mack, the other side of the ball needs to improve. Oakland ranked 26th in the league in total defense.
Raiders coach Jack Del Rio turned into a gambler, winning almost every bold roll of the dice in several tight games. Will the luck factor go his way again?
Will the home-game environments in Oakland be as intense as last year? The Raiders’ approved relocation to Las Vegas casts a cloud of uncertainty over the team.
A year ago, the Raiders won five games by three points or fewer, went 7-2 away from home (including a victory over Texans in Mexico City), finished the regular season 10-6 against the spread and topped their win total of 8½ by the end of November.
The meat grinder in the 2017 schedule comes in Weeks 11 to 16. Oakland’s opponents during that stretch are New England, Denver, the New York Giants, Kansas City, Dallas and Philadelphia.
The Raiders hold the 24th pick of the first round in next week’s NFL Draft. The team will announce its third-day draft picks from Las Vegas, its future home.
At the South Point sports book, more Super Bowl futures tickets have been written on the Raiders than on any other team. Point spreads on Week 1 games were opened Thursday, and don’t be surprised if lines are posted soon on all 16 of the Raiders’ games.
A preview of Oakland’s schedule:
Week 1: Raiders at Titans
The line opened pick’em in a battle between quarterbacks returning from leg injuries suffered in December. Tennessee finished 9-7 last season, but it lost Marcus Mariota, who is developing into a potential Pro Bowler, and missed the playoffs. The Raiders won in Nashville the past two seasons — 17-10 last September and 24-21 in 2015.
Week 2: Jets at Raiders
This is not just any home opener. It will be the first game in Oakland since the move to Las Vegas was approved in a 31-1 vote by NFL owners. No one knows if rowdy fans still will fill the “Black Hole.” No one knows which untested quarterback New York will start.
Week 3: Raiders at Redskins
Four games against NFC East opponents is no easy task. The Raiders go to Washington for the first of their three Sunday night games on NBC. The Redskins went 4-4 at home a year ago, when the Raiders turned into road warriors. Washington figures to be a slight favorite.
Week 4: Raiders at Broncos
The AFC West title, the No. 2 seed in the playoffs and a first-round bye all went down the drain without Carr in Week 17. Vance Joseph, who was Miami’s defensive coordinator, replaces Gary Kubiak as Denver coach. Tony Romo, who could be calling the game from the CBS broadcast booth, will not be quarterbacking the Broncos.
Week 5: Ravens at Raiders
This is first of three consecutive games in Oakland. Carr passed for four touchdowns, including the go-ahead 23-yard connection to Michael Crabtree with 2:12 left, in a 28-27 win at Baltimore last season.
Week 6: Chargers at Raiders
In their final two seasons in San Diego, the Chargers went 1-11 in AFC West games. The Raiders swept the season series both years, but last year’s meetings went to the wire (19-16 and 34-31). Oakland will be favored by more than a field goal, but be leery of laying the points against Philip Rivers.
Week 7: Chiefs at Raiders
Del Rio is 0-4 against Kansas City as the Raiders’ coach. But the odds should be in his favor. This division showdown is on a Thursday night, and the Chiefs will be in a tough spot, four days after a home game against Pittsburgh.
Week 8: Raiders at Bills
In early December, Carr and the Raiders blew out the Bills 38-24 at Oakland Coliseum. This meeting is in Buffalo, but it’s on Oct. 29, so no snow is in the forecast. Mack will spend the afternoon chasing Tyrod Taylor, the Bills’ elusive quarterback.
Week 9: Raiders at Dolphins
It’s a good bet Del Rio will decide to keep his team on the East Coast and practice in Florida before this Sunday night game. Miami went 10-6 last year, but it beat only one team that reached the playoffs. With a bye on deck, followed by a date with the defending Super Bowl champions, this is an interesting spot for the Raiders.
Week 11: Patriots vs. Raiders
For the second straight season, the Raiders are sacrificing a home game to be the host team in Mexico City. Carr gets a shot at Tom Brady, and the Patriots stay on the road following a Sunday night game at Denver. Making a November line in April, New England figures to be favored by 4½ points or more on a neutral field.
Week 12: Broncos at Raiders
The Raiders officially arrived last season in their 30-20 victory over the Broncos in early November. The atmosphere in Oakland was as hostile as it gets. But much of the fan hostility will now be directed at Mark Davis in his owner’s box.
Week 13: Giants at Raiders
Welcome back to the NFC East. The Raiders will be in the midst of one of the NFL’s toughest scheduling stretches. Still, Eli Manning and the Giants will be in a division sandwich spot here, off a game at Washington and before a game against Dallas.
Week 14: Raiders at Chiefs
Did we mention Del Rio’s depressing record against the Chiefs? He might not be winless against Andy Reid by the time of this rematch. When these teams met in Kansas City last December, Carr had trouble throwing in the cold with a finger injury and the Raiders fell 21-13.
Week 15: Cowboys at Raiders
After blazing the Raiders’ trail to Las Vegas, Dallas owner Jerry Jones might consider bringing extra security to Oakland. The Cowboys will be a fascinating team to watch, a year after winning 13 games behind rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, the league’s rushing leader. This has the potential to be a marquee game on NBC’s Sunday night lineup.
Week 16: Raiders at Eagles
How good is this: “Monday Night Football” on Christmas in Philadelphia. ESPN’s Jon Gruden will spend the night praising Carr and Carson Wentz, because Gruden loves to praise quarterbacks. Will either team be in the hunt for a division title? How many games will the Raiders win against NFC East opponents?
Week 17: Raiders at Chargers
Trivia question: When did the Raiders last play in Los Angeles? Answer: 1994. Technically, this game is not in L.A., it’s at the tiny StubHub Center in Carson. The Raiders probably will get stronger fan support than the host Chargers.