By Dave Thomas
For the Oakland Raiders, finishing strong is as important as anything else over the next six weeks.
Sitting in first place in the AFC West at 8-2, the Raiders are playing in the most competitive division in the NFL. They can’t afford to get complaisant and watch their one-game divisional lead dissolve.
Coming into the 2016 campaign, the expectations for the Raiders were high, but not too many people could have forecast that the team would have just two losses (Atlanta, Kansas City) after 10 games.
That said, the pressure remains high to finish the season strong. While the Raiders should be favored in most if not all of their remaining six regular season games, head coach Jack Del Rio knows they must take it one game at a time. Here is a little preview if what’s in store for the Raiders down the stretch.
It All Starts With Newton And The Panthers
Heading into the 2016 season, there were a fair amount of NFL enthusiasts who believed the team would be better than they had been over the last decade, but likely not sitting in first place after 10 games. With an MVP candidate at quarterback, Derek Carr, the Raiders have not looked like the team who repeatedly left fans frustrated since the 2002 Super Bowl season.
That said, the Raiders know that no one is going to roll over and play dead for them down the stretch, starting with Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers come Sunday in Oakland.
Despite having a terrible year, Carolina could still make the NFC playoffs with a late run and some help along the way. Sitting at 4-6, the Panthers are as dangerous as any team the Raiders will face in their final six regular season contests.
Once the Panthers leave town, the Buffalo Bills (5-5) come to town on Dec. 4.
Buffalo, a team that hasn’t had much to shout about since its run of four straight Super Bowl appearances, which they lost all four, is fighting for an AFC Wild Card spot this season. Although New England has not won the AFC East by any means, the Pats hold a three-game lead over Buffalo.
Assuming Oakland gets past both Carolina and Buffalo, then the fun starts.
Three Trips to Division Rivals
Starting with a Thursday evening game (Dec. 8) in Kansas City, Oakland will look to run the AFC West gauntlet, still facing road games in San Diego (Dec. 18) and Denver (Jan. 1), respectively.
While the Raiders fell at home earlier this season to the Chiefs (26-10), they did score wins over both San Diego (34-31) and defending Super Bowl winner Denver (30-20) in the Bay Area.
If one were to remove any biases from the matter, one would expect Oakland to lose at least one of those final three division games, perhaps even two. Just looking at the games on paper, Kansas City is always a difficult out when playing at home, while a New Year’s Day game in the Mile High City against the Broncos could mean unpredictable weather and thus an even more unpredictable game.
Sitting inside those three away dates with division rivals will be a Christmas Eve home game with the Indianapolis Colts.
While the Colts have been down on their luck much of this season (5-5) heading into a Thanksgiving evening date with Pittsburgh, this will prove another game the Raiders simply can’t overlook.
If Oakland is to get rid of the playoff hex this season, it will need strong efforts over the next six weeks.
With just a one-game lead over both Kansas City and Denver, a few slip-ups here and there could cost the Raiders much more than just the AFC West crown. Hold on tight, the Raiders’ fans are in store for an exciting finish.