An elevated challenge awaits the Raiders upon returning to work Wednesday after the bye week.
It comes in the form of the suddenly surging Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who looked vulnerable and undisciplined in a loss to the Chicago Bears on Oct. 8 but regrouped and whipped the previously undefeated Green Bay Packers on Sunday.
That changed the dynamic of the Raiders’ return to action Sunday at Allegiant Stadium.
The national stage of “Sunday Night Football” is no longer just an opportunity to build on the momentum of their upset win over the Kansas City Chiefs. It’s a chance to add to their growing stature by beating Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.
Tampa Bay (4-2) continues an early season trend of quality opponents on the Raiders’ docket, becoming the sixth straight foe with a record of .500 or above. That run will carry over the following week when the Raiders travel to Cleveland to play the Browns, who will be no worse than 4-3 after visiting the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
If the Raiders can successfully navigate the next two weeks, they will set themselves up for the second half of the season when their schedule significantly softens up.
Awaiting the Raiders after the trip to Cleveland are two games against both the Los Angeles Chargers and Denver Broncos, plus visits to the Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets. Mixed in are home games against the Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts and the rematch against the Chiefs.
The current .426 winning percentage of the Raiders’ remaining opponents creates the fifth-easiest schedule in the NFL. To put that in perspective, though, the Raiders faced the easiest schedule only one week ago — or until their future opponents went 6-2 last week.
Nevertheless, things should get a bit easier for the Raiders as they mount a potential playoff push. The eventual return of wide receiver Bryan Edwards (ankle), guard Richie Incognito (injured reserve with an Achilles injury) and rookie cornerback Damon Arnette, who is on injured reserve and the COVID-19 reserve list after testing positive Monday, should strengthen the roster.
Edwards and Incognito are long shots to return this week, but there is hope that both will be back within the next few weeks.
Up first, though, are the Buccaneers, whose 38-10 win over the Packers revealed as well-rounded a team as the Raiders have faced.
While Brady is the headliner, and rightfully so after making the move to Florida from New England, Tampa Bay has a bevy of skill players, a formidable offensive line and an aggressive defense that has notched a league-best 15 sacks and six interceptions.
The Buccaneers are limiting opponents to the fewest rush yards per game at 64.3 and the fewest overall yards per game at 282.
Tampa Bay’s defensive prowess creates a litmus test for the Raiders, whose 399.4 yards and 30.2 points per game are both sixth best in the NFL.
If Derek Carr and the Raiders can do to the Buccaneers what they did against the Chiefs in their 40-32 win at Arrowhead Stadium, they will establish themselves as an offense capable of producing against anyone.
To do that, the Raiders will have to achieve what Aaron Rodgers and the Packers could not: Establish a successful run game that forces Tampa Bay to make much harder decisions on when to be aggressive. It also didn’t help that the Packers fell behind 21-10 after Rodgers threw two interceptions, including one for a touchdown.
It meant Green Bay became one-dimensional, which played into the hands of the blitz-happy Buccaneers, who attacked Rodgers from all angles and levels.
The Raiders’ three wins followed a similar blueprint: They minimized penalties and turnovers, which allowed their high-powered offense more time to operate, and made just enough stops defensively to close out the win.
That should bode well against a schedule that gets considerably easier in the final two months.
But it all starts Sunday against a Buccaneers team that looks much stronger today than it did 12 days ago.