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Raiders look promising, but Sunday's Broncos bout looms large

The knee-jerk response to the Raiders' 22-20 loss in Chicago would be to say little has changed around Oakland. That also would be a considerable mistake to make at this point.

Yes, the Raiders suffered a difficult, last-second defeat -- courtesy of a 49-yard Robbie Gould field goal -- but that isn't the game that will define them this early in the season. That game will take placeĀ this Sunday, when the Denver Broncos come to town.

It would've been a compelling story to talk about the Raiders, now 2-2, starting the year with a 3-1 record. It's still not a bad idea to ponder what has been transpiring around the Silver & Black in recent weeks. This no longer feels like a team that arguably has been the worst in professional football since reaching the Super Bowl in the 2002 season. Instead, it's starting to seem as if Oakland might have ample reason to be excited about what could happen in the near future.

Last Sunday's road loss to the previously winless Bears might've led to a long, painful flight home. This week's home contest against Denver will tell us more about how mentally tough the Raiders really have become in Year 1 of coach Jack Del Rio's tenure.

"I think the guys have bonded well," veteran defensive end Justin Tuck said. "Coach wants us to have fun and enjoy being at work, but he's also very serious about getting the job done. He gives us our freedom as long as we handle it. The good thing is that we have a lot of guys around here who are tired of losing and hearing about the 'same old Raiders.' We want to change that."

One major reason for the optimism around Oakland is Del Rio. After going through eight head coaches in the previous 12 seasons, the Raiders landed somebody who brought a much-needed mix of energy, credibility and experience to the job. The cynics might say that being head coach of the Raiders is an easier position these days because famed owner Al Davis is no longer with us. If that were indeed the case, then the two other men who held the post after Davis' passing -- Hue Jackson and, more recently, Dennis Allen -- would've found a way to remain employed.

Del Rio quickly gave the players the types of perks that veterans enjoy. He created a leadership council consisting of the most influential members of his roster. He's listened to players and asked for feedback. As Tuck suggested, he's treated his players like grown men instead of a rag-tag unit that needed to be browbeaten into shape. The result is a team that is more connected to its coach -- instead of one merely waiting for the next firing to be announced by Mark Davis, Al Davis' son and the Raiders' current owner.

It also has helped that Del Rio has been blessed with the kind of talent that hasn't been seen around Oakland in years. The defense still has plenty to figure out -- it's allowing 27 points per game -- but the offense finally has legitimate buzz surrounding it. A good portion of that excitement stems from the rapid emergence of wide receiver Amari Cooper, the fourth overall pick in this year's draft and a player who easily leads all rookies in receptions (24) and receiving yards (339). More of it, however, relates to the quarterback, second-year pro Derek Carr.

Carr was the best rookie signal caller in the NFL last year. He's even more impressive this year, as his numbers (62.6 completion percentage, seven touchdown passes and only two interceptions) indicate no signs of a sophomore slump.

"I've known Derek a long time because I played with his brother [David]," said Tuck, in reference to playing with David Carr in 2008 and '09 with the New York Giants. "His poise is higher than what it should be for a second-year player. He doesn't get rattled and he embraces the moment. A lot of that probably has to do with having a brother who played in the league. He reminds me a lot of Eli [Manning] in how he plays the game."

It might sound like blasphemy to compare a Carr to a Manning, but Derek has given the Raiders a foundational player to build around, with Cooper and second-year pro Khalil Mack at outside linebacker also falling into that category. There's really only so much guidance that aging veterans like Tuck and safety Charles Woodson can offer at this point of their careers. They've won their Super Bowl rings and played in plenty of Pro Bowls. The true measure of how far the Raiders can go revolves around how quickly their younger generation can grasp the idea that this franchise can't be cursed with futility forever.

The only ugly loss the Raiders have endured this season came in the opener against Cincinnati. In their defense, that 33-13 defeat doesn't seem nearly as deflating now that the Bengals are still undefeated and looking very much like a Super Bowl contender. The loss in Chicago was the real heart-breaker, because the Raiders put themselves in position to win with a late interception by Woodson and a 41-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski with just over two minutes left in the contest. If not for some big throws by Jay Cutler and some great plays by his receivers, the Raiders would've left victorious.

There were ample growing pains in the defeat -- the Bears' defense contained Carr and Cooper, while promising third-year pro Latavius Murrayturned the ball over twice -- but the Raiders also didn't act like a team that couldn't rebound quickly.

"This was just one of those old-fashioned NFL fights," Carr told reporters after the game. "Down to the wire. There was no lack of focus or lack of effort. Nothing that would alarm you."

That brings us to this week, as Peyton Manning hits Oakland with an undefeated Broncos team that has won seven straight games against the Raiders (all by 13 points or more). This is the kind of game that, in recent years, wouldn't even demand attention outside of the Bay Area because the talent gap was too great and the odds of an upset too slim. This year feels like a different story. This is the opportunity for the Raiders to prove how much they've grown.

It's fair to say that it will be more of a game than it's been in a long time, especially since the Raiders have played three straight contests that were decided in the final seconds. It also might end with another Oakland defeat.

What shouldn't be lost in the aftermath is how far the Raiders have come in a short time this season. What's even more intriguing about this team is how much ground it potentially can cover over the next three months.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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