New-look Raiders will push Chargers for AFC West crown

I've got news for ya, Oakland is here to stay. To quote George Strait, "If you're thinkin' you want a stranger, there's one comin' home."

Talent-wise, and scheme-wise, these aren't your older brother's Raiders. The Silver and Black boast good players on both sides of the ball and excel in special teams.

The Raiders still take their shots down the field as part of the "Football Bible According To Al," but there are a few wrinkles in their aerial attack under new head coach -- and quarterback guru -- Hue Jackson.

Jackson doesn't have quarterback Jason Campbell fling it downfield with reckless abandon. Rather Jackson has Campbell picks his spots, like going for a nine-route to Darrius Heyward-Bey from inside Oakland's own 5-yard line Monday night in Denver. The former offensive coordinator has this team using multiple formations and is doing whatever it takes to get the ball into his playmaker's hands.

That Raiders will use option pitch plays, the Wildcat, and a variety of backs despite the presence of a bona fide stud in Darren McFadden, who torched the Broncos for 150 yards on 22 carriers in the season opener. Their smart brand of aggressive football, while making the most of McFadden and the explosive Jacoby Ford, is just one reason to believe the Raiders won't regress after a surprising 2010 campaign, despite all the predictions to the contrary.

Last season's 8-8 record was not a mirage. In fact, Oakland could improve in 2011, even with a tough schedule that includes eight games against the NFC North and AFC East.

Let me provide a few more causes for the newfound optimism in Raiderland:

» The front four can play. Right defensive end Matt Shaughnessy is a beast and can be very disruptive when he wants to be -- and doesn't get flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Ditto Tommy Kelly. And don't forget about 11-year vet Richard Seymour, who hasn't even come close to slowing down. Seymour still commands double teams, which opens up free lanes to the quarterback for everyone else. Just ask Denver quarterback Kyle Orton -- sacked four times Monday -- what it's like to face the revamped Raiders.

» The secondary is not as depleted as the media would have you believe, Nnamdi Asomugha's departure notwithstanding. New defensive backs coach (and Hall of Famer) Rod Woodson has opined that eighth-year cornerback Chris Johnson can be a very good player, and he more then proved it before getting hurt early in training camp. Healthy now, Johnson is once again a player. The Broncos tested him often, and Johnson more than held his own.

In fact, Johnson isn't the only Oakland corner worth discussing. Right corner Stanford Routt allowed the second lowest completion percentage among corners targeted at least 40 times in 2010 (see, box right). Not bad for the "other" guy. Strong safety Tyvon Branch also is a very good tackler and has worked very hard on his game, while the less consistent Michael Huff can still make big plays when healthy.

» Campbell looks a lot better with consistent coaching. The former Auburn star's has endured more turnover among offensive coordinators in his career than the actors playing Russ and Audrey in the Vacation movies.

Campbell played smart most of Monday night, and while his 105-yard, one-touchdown performance won't wow you, he did most of what he was asked to do, like not commit any turnovers.

This doesn't necessarily mean Oakland will go 11-5 and win the AFC West. The wideouts need to create plays, not just complete them (I'm looking at you Heyward-Bey). The offensive line is so-so, and there could be some depth concerns.

That said, the Chargers better check their rearview before looking too far ahead because the gap between these two teams is not a big as all those prognosticators picking Oakland to go 5-11 would lead you to believe. Keep in mind, the Raiders swept the division last year. That's two victories over San Diego.

The biggest hurdle to the Raiders making the leap to the postseason might be, well, the Raiders. The penalty party on Monday (15 infractions for 131 yards) harkened back to the Art Shell, Mike White, and -- ironically enough -- Norv Turner eras. In order to catch Turner's Chargers, the lack of discipline has to be fixed.

But that's the point: the Raiders' biggest issue can be fixed.

Not so for the rest of the division. The Chiefs can't magically get Tony Moeaki, Eric Berry and Matt Cassel back. Cassel isn't out with injury, but his game sure is hurt. The Denver John's can't blink their eyes and have Oakland's front four, much less a McFadden (how badass is he, by the way?).

It's a two-horse race in the AFC West. Raider Nation, even if you don't win the thing, go ahead and pack the panic button away in mothballs.

It's OK. Really. These aren't your older brother's Raiders.

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