The Raiders just put some doubts to rest about the resiliency and talent level on their roster.
Oakland just beat the Baltimore Ravens, a perennial contender, after getting walloped by another AFC North team, the Bengals. Their next two opponents don’t come close to the level of talent that the first two teams have.
Oakland starts a two-game road trip Sunday with the Cleveland Browns, who don’t really have an official starting quarterback, and then head to Chicago, where Jay Cutler was pulled today after a hamstring injury.
Cleveland has a tough defense, but beyond that, they are unproven at best. Chicago’s best players are hurt. Rookie receiver Kevin White, Cutler, cornerback Tracy Porter might not be healthy yet, along with a few other notables.
Had Oakland lost to Baltimore — and they surely had their chances — these games might be question marks still.
Not to say they’re slam dunks. We’re still talking about a team that got whooped on the road after their first win last season, which allowed Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio to make a room full of reporters chuckle when he gave his solution to not fall into the trap:
“We’re just not going to travel to St. Louis.”
Ah, yes. If only it were that simple. But this is a totally different team. The roster filled with new starters in every unit. The offensive line, backfield, defensive units. This team has made significant upgrades.
And there’s always the possibility they continue to upgrade during the regular season, like trading for safety Kam Chancellor. A deal may or may not happen, though it would be shocking if the Raiders aren’t discussing the possibility regularly with Seahawks general manager John Schneider.
Oakland has the opportunity to do something here. They have a solid pass rush, even if it hasn’t been seen on tape yet. Justin Tuck is still near elite, and Khalil Mack mixed with Aldon Smith is scary.
Their top corners, T.J. Carrie and D.J. Hayden, are progressing nicely. Hayden’s cutting his mistakes, Carrie remains a star in the making, and even Nieko Thorpe has looked outstanding.
The offense, too, is showing up. Against one of the best defenses in the NFL, quarterback Derek Carr had two 100-yard receivers, the first time the Raiders have had that since 2012.
The offensive line is good. These are not the Raiders from the last couple seasons.
Oakland has a chance to win three straight games for the first time since Weeks 10 through 12 of 2011. Yes, it’s been close to four years since Oakland has done that. They can ride those three games back to the Coliseum, where they face Denver in Week 5. But lets not get too far ahead.
While no win is a true slam dunk win in professional football, Cleveland is as soft of a matchup as the Raiders can ask for. Chicago, minus Cutler, White, and Brandon Marshall, is about the same. Maybe better.
Neither come close to being as tough as Cincinnati or Baltimore, two elite teams built to play defense and destroy young, inexperienced, teams. Both have Super Bowl talent in every group.
The Bears and Browns, though, are desolate and barren when looking for top-level talent. The only exception resides in Cleveland, their offensive line is outstanding, and Joe Haden is terrific.
But there’s no quarterback, so it’s tough to call them anything more than suspect. They’re the 2013 Raiders, perhaps.
And the Bears are the 2014 Raiders, regardless of who is playing quarterback.
The 2015 Raiders, though, are beginning to look like a polished machine with enough talent to be labeled contenders. They need to stay healthy to maintain that, which is something that has not happened in recent or long-term memory.
The last time Oakland was close to a contender, Jason Campbell was the starting quarterback. And he got hurt, Al Davis passed away shortly after, and the team used first- and third-round draft picks to trade for Carson Palmer.
Oakland looks like a team Vegas oddsmakers will need to keep a very close eye on. As will the rest of the football world, who were expecting something special at some point, but perhaps not this soon.
Oakland may finally benefit from the last three seasons of suck-tastic football. The stuff that had die-hards booing their top players and praying to the heavens for a brighter day.
All those high draft picks. All that excess salary cap room.
Now top players like Aldon Smith are joining the team, and passing up on substantially more money while they do it.
It’s too early to be certain that the turnaround point has arrived. But it sure looks like it.
And the Raiders will win three straight, now, if it’s actually here.
Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of the Oakland Raiders.