Taking the long view: First five games a challenge

You normally have to look at preseason "strength of schedule" with a grain of salt but the Oakland Raiders have a legitimate reason to label their schedule, at least in the first five weeks, as difficult.

In one respect, it's premature to judge a team's schedule as "difficult" or "easy" in today's topsy-turvy NFL landscape because the schedule only takes into account what happened the previous season. For example, a team that went 12-4 in 2004 could just as easily go 4-12 in 2005.

The Oakland Raiders open their season on Thursday night at the New England Patriots in a nationally televised game. The Patriots have won three of the last four Super Bowl titles as well as the last two while the Raiders are trying to reverse a recent trend that has not been pretty the last two seasons, posting a 9-23 record in that span.

"It's a big test going against New England," Raiders quarterback Kerry Collins said. "They've had some changes but they're going to have a good football team like they always are. It's going to be a huge task for us."

As discombobulated as the current NFL can be, the Raiders first five opponents do not have the look of teams that will suddenly become awful. Here's a closer look:

September, 8: at New England: Losing linebacker Tedy Bruschi is critical. Bruschi might not be confused with Ray Lewis but his leadership and intangibles cannot be overlooked. New England also lost both coordinators, Charlie Weiss and Romeo Crennel, but the Patriots still have head coach Bill Bellichick. Also, when it comes to quarterbacks, there's no one better with the game on the line than Tom Brady.

September, 18: vs. Kansas City: The Chiefs and Raiders, two traditional rivals, meet in front of a Sunday night nationally televised audience. Both teams have the weapons offensively but on paper it appears that Kansas City has done more to improve a leaky defense. Should be an interesting game nonetheless that will be critical for both teams.

September 25: at Philadelphia: The Raiders face their second Super Bowl representative in three weeks. They will also be traveling into a hostile environment. The Donovan McNabb-Terrell Owens saga, mostly of Owens' doing, has grabbed numerous headlines but the Eagles still have a talented roster and an outstanding coaching staff.

October 2: vs. Dallas: Not that Oakland can't beat the three aforementioned teams but this one appears to be the most winnable on the surface. Dallas' defense should improve but is also trying to make a transition to the 3-4. Offensively, the Cowboys have an emerging star in running back Julius Jones but is newly acquired quarterback Drew Bledsoe more than just a journeyman?

October 16, vs. San Diego: The Chargers came out of nowhere last season to win the AFC West but one cannot assume their next step will be forward because several guys had career years. This is still a solid team with question marks on defense but when you have Drew Brees under center and LaDainion Tomlinson at running back, that's a good place to start.

Looking ahead: If Oakland can get a split between New England and Philadelphia, That would be outstanding. So would two wins in that five-game span. Oakland could do better in that stretch but 2-3 is not a disaster.

Vince D'Adamo can be reached at vdad7@yahoo.com

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