Besides Rich Gannon's aerial display, the Raiders 30-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers revealed a couple of other things. Perhaps, the preseason prognosticators should not have been so quick to just hand the AFC Title to Pittsburgh. In addition, maybe Oakland's immediate schedule is not as overwhelming as it appeared.
Gannon set franchise records in completions (43), attempts (64) and yards (403) one week after New England's Tom Brady threw 25 consecutive passes in the Patriots 30-14 win over Pittsburgh. The Raiders said they would not duplicate New England's passing strategy. Instead, Oakland surpassed it. Since the NFL is a copycat league, teams will likely continue going to the air until Pittsburgh proves it can stop the pass.
The Steelers were viewed by many preseason publications as the favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Pittsburgh, which has a bye week before playing home against Cleveland September 29, has looked anything but championship material in its first two games. Granted, an 0-2 start is not the end of the world but few teams recover from that situation.
Pittsburgh's status of preseason favorite seemed warranted with 20 of 22 starters returning from a team that went 13-3 and reached the AFC Title Game. Those same prognosticators, however, forgot that Pittsburgh is susceptible on special teams, a flaw badly exploited in its 21-17 loss in the AFC Title Game to New England. Oakland exposed that weakness too when Terry Kirby returned a kickoff 96 yards to paydirt to open the fourth quarter. That gave Oakland a 27-17 lead and swung the complexion of the game.
The Raiders' schedule appeared to be daunting as well because six of their 2002 foes made the playoffs last year and a Tennessee is a team that appears to be a much-improved club from the 7-9 version last season. Oakland, like Pittsburgh, has a bye week before returning to host Tennessee on September 29th. The Raiders then follow with road games at Buffalo and St. Louis, the defending NFC champs are 0-2 along with Buffalo.
Tennessee has a 1-1 mark in two close games, meaning the Titans are not the type of team that will blow a team out. When the game is close, anything goes. Oakland still faces a challenging road through the regular season but it does not appear to be as tremendous as it may have seemed.
There's a reason why not to be misled by preseason strength of schedule. It only takes into account what those teams did the year before and teams change radically from one year to the next. From 2000 to 2001, there were 23 teams with a two games or more difference in their record and 19 teams had a three games or more difference. In the NFL there's a big difference between going say 8-8 and 10-6. The former means you assuredly will not make the playoffs while the latter generally makes you a lock.