In years past, it was the Patriots; or the Steelers; or the Colts; or maybe the Ravens. But, as we head into Week 11 of this NFL season, there isn't that one dominant team that's clearly the favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
This season, there is unprecedented parity in the American Football Conference, highlighted by the fact that only one game separates all teams in the AFC West. This is the latest point in a season that has ever happened.
All of this close competition begs the question, why not the Raiders?
Heading into this week's competition, the Raiders are in sole possession of first place in the AFC West. But, that's just the beginning of the story.
Quarterback Carson Palmer, acquired on October 18, is starting to resemble the Palmer of several years ago, when he was one of the league's top passers.
The mere acquisition of Palmer, and the steep price the Raiders paid for him, put the rest of the league on notice that the organization is trying to win now, not planning for the future.
Palmer's assimilation into the Raiders offense, which is stocked with powerful running backs and big, speedy receivers, will make Oakland a force to be reckoned with in the final quarter of the season.
The Raiders' schedule for the final seven games of the season is an up-and-down mix of tough opponents and weak ones that the Raiders should be heavily favored over. It starts with their Week 11 opponents, the Minnesota Vikings, a team in disarray that Oakland should beat.
Week 12 brings the Chicago Bears, which will be a tough game, but the Raiders should be favored at home. The following week, the Raiders travel to Miami to play a terrible Dolphins team. That should also be a win for the silver and black.
Week 14 will require the Raiders to travel to Green Bay to face the Packers. As if playing the currently undefeated Packers isn't hard enough, we all know how tough the weather is in Wisconsin in December. If there is a likely loss for the Raiders, this is it.
Week 15 will bring the Detroit Lions to Oakland. In the past, this would be an easy win, but these aren't the Lions of yesteryear. This game will be extremely tough, even at home.
In Week 16, the Raiders travel to Kansas City. The Chiefs should be without quarterback Matt Cassel, who is expected to miss the rest of the season with an injury to his throwing hand. It's never easy to win in Kansas City, but the Raiders should be able to repay the Chiefs for the 28-0 beating they put on the Raiders in Oakland earlier in the season.
Finally, the Raiders will close out the regular season with the San Diego Chargers visiting Oakland. The Raiders handed the sinking Chargers their fourth consecutive loss in San Diego in Week 10, and there's nothing to suggest that the Chargers will turn things around as the season progresses.
Accounting for losses in Green Bay and against Detroit (with the Detroit game possibly going either way) the Raiders would finish with a minimum of 10 wins and the AFC West title. They've already proven they can beat "elite" teams in the AFC, such as the Texans and Jets. Who says the Raiders can't make a run deep into the playoffs?
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