Oakland Raiders: Breaking Down 5 Toughest, 5 Easiest Games on 2015 Schedule

Brian Flores@@Raiders_TrackerContributor IIIApril 24, 2015

Oakland Raiders: Breaking Down 5 Toughest, 5 Easiest Games on 2015 Schedule

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    Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports

    With the release of the Oakland Raiders' 2015 season schedule, the opportunity has arrived to take a look ahead and make some early predictions for the team's performance in the upcoming NFL season.

    You might be thinking to yourself, "But there's still the draft! And rosters are going to continue to take shape throughout the summer!" You might be thinking that, perhaps, it would be prudent to wait at least a little longer, at least until after the draft, before trying to make such predictions. Maybe you're right.

    But where's the fun in that?

    Yes, teams will make major additions in the upcoming draft. There'll also be plenty of turnover at various positions leading up to training camp, during training camp and throughout the preseason. But here's what we do know:

    • The Oakland roster is much improved from last season.
    • The Raiders were better (at least slightly) than their final 3-13 record indicated.
    • Several of the teams on Oakland's slate have established identities, which means there's a reasonable expectation of what we'll see from them in 2015.

    With that in mind, we can start to differentiate the more difficult matchups from the easiest ones. Of course, "easiest" is a relative term. There are no actual easy games on Oakland's schedule. However, there are some games that, as of now, seem more winnable than others. In this regard, these matchups will be considered the easiest games on the schedule.

    Here's a look at the Raiders' five toughest and five easiest matchups for the upcoming season. The toughest ones are games Oakland is likely to lose. The easiest are games that Oakland can, and should, win.

Toughest No. 5: Pittsburgh Steelers (Away)

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Date: November 8 (Week 9)

    The Pittsburgh Steelers are football's version of the San Antonio Spurs. It's become almost an annual tradition to ask, "Is this the year that they finally have to rebuild?" Yet somehow, season after season, the team gets it together and becomes a legitimate threat once the postseason rolls around.

    For Pittsburgh, everything begins and ends with Ben Roethlisberger. The 33-year-old signal-caller proved last season that he still has plenty left in the tank despite the physical wear-and-tear he's experienced throughout his career. As long as he's under center for the Steelers, the offense will be dangerous.

    Roethlisberger has also experienced something of a resurgence in his career since playing under offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Add to that weapons like wide receiver Antonio Brown and running backs Le'Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, and the Steelers should have an effective, and possibly potent, offense.

    Oakland will have a chance in this one, but facing one of the league's better teams on the road is a tall order for any team. It's an especially tall one for a Raiders team that has struggled mightily on the road, especially on cross-country trips, for years.

Easiest No. 5: Cincinnati Bengals (Home)

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    Date: September 13 (Week 1)

    When playing the Cincinnati Bengals, it's a question of which Andy Dalton will show up. Will it be patient, efficient, "take what the defense gives me" Dalton? Or will it be "I can make any throw no matter how many defenders are in the way" Dalton?

    Dalton is a quarterback who can be forced into bad decisions. This will play right into the hands of Oakland's defense, especially now that the defensive front seven has been shored up.

    This is also an ideal scenario for second-year quarterback Derek Carr. Last season, he started in Week 1 as a rookie on the road. This season, he'll start Week 1 with a year of experience under his belt and in front of a home crowd that will be especially ravenous given that it'll be the season opener.

    Despite making the playoffs last season, the Bengals are unreliable. This is the same team that blew out and was blown out by the Cleveland Browns in the same season. There's no telling what you're going to get from Dalton or the Bengals on any given week.

    This is a Bengals team that has shown, when it gets going, it is capable of beating any team. But when things are off, they're really off. The Raiders will have the opportunity to set the tone early in this game. Once the momentum swings in their favor, it should allow the team to open up 2015 with a win.

Toughest No. 4: Baltimore Ravens (Home)

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    Date: September 20 (Week 2)

    While he doesn't get the same publicity as other elite quarterbacks, Joe Flacco certainly belongs in the discussion.

    With all the improvements the Raiders have made this offseason, the one position that has been neglected is cornerback. Whether it's on short passes or deep down the field, the Oakland cornerbacks haven't shown many positives in any area, and that hasn't changed.

    While the rest of the defense might be able to hold their own, the cornerbacks will be in for a long day in this game.

    Offensively, the Raiders will also have a tough time. Even with the departure of Haloti Ngata, the Baltimore Ravens defense is still formidable, and the Raiders will have a tough time moving the ball.

    There's no one area in this matchup that the Raiders can look at as a deciding factor in their favor. It'll be a close game, but the Ravens are simply a better team, even if it's sometimes only only by a small margin, in every area.

Easiest No. 4: Chicago Bears (Away)

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    Andrew Nelles/Associated Press

    Date: October 4 (Week 4)

    The Chicago Bears are the rich man's Cincinnati Bengals. They have a $100 million quarterback in Jay Cutler and some playmakers around the roster. But this is also a team that has perpetually underachieved for years, and that's going to continue with Cutler under center.

    This is a game that could play right into what the Raiders have built for. Cutler is a bad decision waiting to happen, and the Raiders can take advantage of this thanks to the rebuilt front seven. Pressuring Cutler will lead to opportunities for turnovers all game.

    This will also make the offense's life easier. It won't have to worry about having to put up a ton of points. Instead, all it has to be is efficient. Let Cutler lead the Bears to the edge of the cliff himself, then just nudge them over.

    Of course, there's always the possibility that Cutler has a good day. Those days have become more and more scarce, but when he's on, you remember why he got that giant contract.

    This isn't a game in which to relax, but if the Raiders play smart and to their strengths, they can leave Chicago with a convincing win.

Toughest No. 3: Kansas City Chiefs (Away)

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    Date: January 3 (Week 17)

    No matter what time of year it is, no matter what the standings say, a trip to visit the Kansas City Chiefs is always a tough one; that won't be any different in 2015. This game could have added weight given that it's the last game of the season, and it's very possible that both teams will be jockeying for playoff position.

    While this is one of the tougher matchups on Oakland's schedule, it's also one of the more difficult to predict. The Chiefs are a team that's efficient more than anything. They're not going to blow you out offensively, and they're not going to shut you down defensively. They're going to do just enough on both sides of the ball to slowly wear you down and ultimately do just enough to win.

    Now, Kansas City also has the added weapon of Jeremy Maclin. No Kansas City wide receiver caught a touchdown pass in 2014, but Maclin is sure to change that this season. He's a legitimate deep threat, and he's capable of single-handedly winning a game. That's going to add a new dimension to the Chiefs offense that was completely absent last year.

    This is going to be a big test for these reasons: In Week 17, will the Raiders have grown enough as a team to go on the road and beat a team that isn't going to beat itself? Will the Raiders be able to go on the road to arguably the toughest place to visit and take a win?

    The Raiders will certainly have their work cut out for them in this one.

Easiest No. 3: Cleveland Browns (Away)

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Date: September 27 (Week 3)

    In a rematch of last year's Week 8 matchup, the Raiders will once again visit the Cleveland Browns in 2015. Last year's game was one of the most frustrating of the season. The game was there for the taking, but offensive series after inept offensive series, the Raiders failed to snatch a game that should have been theirs, and it resulted in a loss.

    Things will be different this season. The Raiders could've, and should've, won the game last year, and that was with fledgling Derek Carr. Now, with a season of experience, he'll be able to take advantage of opportunities he wasn't able to before.

    Defensively, the Raiders had a very good performance, and the unit is now much improved. The Browns are unsettled at quarterback to say the least, and the Oakland defense will now be able to take advantage of that.

    The fact that this game is on the road is going to pose the biggest problem; the Raiders have not been good on the road for years. Until the team starts winning some road games away from the West Coast, it has to be considered an issue.

    But the fact is the Raiders have a much better roster than last season, and this is still a very beatable Cleveland team. If the Raiders play to their potential, this should be a convincing win.

Toughest No. 2: Denver Broncos (Away)

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Date: December 13 (Week 14)

    The championship window for the Peyton Manning-led Broncos is closing fast. In fact, it's very possible that it's already closed. But that doesn't change the fact that Manning remains one of the most devastatingly efficient regular-season quarterbacks. Outside of the postseason, he remains excellent, especially at home.

    He torched the Oakland secondary in two games last season, and 2015 is likely to provide more of the same. The Raiders cornerbacks are the defense's weakest link, and Manning will surely exploit this group once again.

    For the Raiders to have a chance in this one, they're going to have to try and win a shootout. That's a lot to ask from an offense led by a second-year quarterback and a revamped offensive unit as a whole that will have not yet played a full season together.

    The Raiders will have a better performance against the Broncos in Week 5 when they host Denver. But when they visit the Broncos in Week 14, Manning is likely to have another vintage performance.

Easiest No. 2: New York Jets (Home)

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    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    Date: November 1 (Week 8)

    The one thing that gave the Raiders the most trouble in 2014 was efficient quarterback play. Guys like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Tannehill and Brian Hoyer had some of the best games of their respective careers in 2014 at the expense of the Oakland defense.

    Another name on that list is Geno Smith, who in Week 1 went 23-of-28 for 221 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

    The cause of this was Oakland's front seven, which was weak both against the run and in the pass rush last season. This is something that almost certainly won't be repeated in 2015. Oakland has done a great job of rebuilding its front seven. In 2015, this same group could turn out to be one of the team's strongest.

    Smith had an up-and-down year, and he's certainly not reliable. His play is a microcosm of the team around him, which remains in disarray. The Jets have a new head coach, and they added Brandon Marshall, but it won't be enough to fix the mess that the New York front office has created.

    While the Jets are still trying to figure out how to right the ship, the Raiders are already well on their way. This game will show the contrast between a team with a plan and a team without one, with Oakland looking like the much more solid team in the process.

Toughest No. 1: Green Bay Packers (Home)

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    Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

    Date: December 20 (Week 15)

    This is the single toughest matchup on the Raiders' schedule in 2015.

    The Green Bay Packers have arguably the league's best quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, one of the league's top defenders in Clay Matthews, and an all-around roster that is almost completely free of weaknesses. To beat the Packers, you have to play your best and hope that they're off their game on the same day.

    Do the Raiders have a chance in this one? Yes. But a lot would have to go right for Oakland, and a lot would have to go wrong for Green Bay. The fact that this is a home game for the Raiders won't make much of a difference against a team that is currently one of the three truly elite teams in the NFL (in case you're wondering, the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots are the other two).

    You never say never in sports. But if there's one game the Raiders have little to no chance of winning next season, it's this one.

Easiest No. 1: Tennessee Titans (Away)

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    Date: November 29 (Week 12)

    Every team has must-win games on its schedule. Those are wins the team feels it can count on heading into the season. For Oakland, the best example of this is the Week 12 matchup on the road against the Tennessee Titans.

    It really doesn't matter whom the Titans select second overall in the upcoming draft (assuming they don't trade the pick). It won't be enough to make much of a difference for a team that still has too many holes. No matter where you look on the Tennessee roster, there's no one that you look at and say, "That's a guy that can win you a game."

    That's not to say that the team is completely devoid of talent. Defensively, players like Brian Orakpo (when healthy) and Da'Norris Searcy can make some plays. But they're not going to win a game, and they have little to no help around them. The offense is even worse off, with no one on the team that's going to force an opposing team to game-plan for them.

    This was the Raiders just a few years ago, but it's not the Raiders of 2015. Oakland has built a solid roster, and it's certainly more talented than Tennessee's. Carr now has enough weapons to put up points on a suspect Tennessee defense, and the Titans offense doesn't have enough firepower to take on the much-improved Raiders defense.

    Oakland should win this game.

    Unless otherwise noted, all stats taken from ESPN.com.

    Which matchups do you see as the toughest and the easiest on the Raiders' schedule? Let me know what you think in the comments section and on Twitter @BrianJ_Flores.

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