Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 7/28/12
It is no secret that the Oakland Raiders have some question marks heading into the 2012 season.

A “W” on the schedule following at least the majority of these five games will be crucial if the Raiders' hope to make the postseason.
 

5.  September 30th @Denver Broncos - Peyton Manning will take the field for the first time against the Raiders with home-field advantage. The Raiders will face him again in Oakland later in the season, but this game will set the tone.

The Raiders will be coming off a tough contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers the week before and will have to avoid an emotional letdown. 

The team has some defensive issues, but the key to this game will be the pass rush. If the defensive line can sack or even seriously rattle Manning; who’s probably one major hit away from the end of his career; it may be enough to hand the game to Carson Palmer and the rest of the offense. 

The Broncos' secondary had issues last year due to the youth of their squad. This year they’ve brought in veteran free agents Tracy Porter at corner and Mike Adams at safety to shore up the defense. It will be up to Palmer and receivers Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey to carve up this cadre, who may not be accustomed to working together by this point.

4.  September 23rd Pittsburgh Steelers - The Steelers once again have a vaunted defense which some are calling the best in the league. They’ve brought in new shutdown corners Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen, and Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu is still stalking the secondary. The combination will give the Raiders' offense headaches. 

A productive performance from Darren McFadden could ease some of the pain. The Steelers' offense hinges once again on Ben Roethlisberger. Rashard Mendenhall is questionable due to recent surgery and looks to be inactive at the start of the season.

It’s a good bet that even if he’s playing by the time this game rolls around, he won’t be at 100 percent. Therefore, it’s up to Roethlisberger, whose mobility is what gives the Steelers victories. If the Raiders' secondary can gobble up Pittsburgh’s young but talented receivers and the rest of the defense can keep Roethlisberger in the pocket, the Raiders will have a chance.

3.  November 11th vs. Baltimore Ravens - At the season halfway mark, the Raiders might have been able to shake off earlier losses to the Steelers, Broncos or both. By November it’s likely the team won’t be able to afford a loss to the Ravens. The Ravens’ defense will challenge the Steelers for the top spot in the NFL, so some of the same essentials will apply. The Ravens however, have a more dynamic pass rush and the Raiders' offensive line will really need to step up and protect Palmer. 

Ravens linebacker and Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs is coming off injury and will probably be sidelined for the season which will make the Raiders breathe easier. The Ravens' offense features a line that has been accused of being a bit long in the tooth and is currently missing star Brant McKinnie who is holding out.

Joe Flacco will return to head a tested group of veterans that posted middle-of-the-pack numbers last season.  The Raiders will need to snag a few interceptions from a quarterback who is notoriously stingy in handing them out.

2.  November 18th vs.  New Orleans Saints - It’s unlikely that the Raiders will see the same Saints team that has broken franchise records and won a Super Bowl in recent years as the “BountyGate” scandal has decimated the coaching staff. The Saints can either be demoralized or motivated but it’s fairly inconceivable that quarterback Drew Brees would allow the latter.

The Saints are adept at changing up blocking schemes to protect Brees and confounding a defensive pass rush; the Raiders are going to need a strong edge rush from ends Matt Shaughnessy  and Lamarr Houston to hurry the Saints’ record-setting quarterback. 

Unfortunately, they’ll also have to keep an eye on New Orleans’ other star in the backfield, Darren Sproles, who generated almost 3,000 all-purpose yards last season. If the Raiders can at least slow down the Saints’ high-powered offense, they may be able to squeeze out a win here.

1.  December 30th @San Diego Chargers - The final game of the season against division rival San Diego Chargers can be meaningless or an all or nothing proposition as it was last year. In 2011, the Raiders had only to repeat the performance that earned them a win against the Chargers earlier in the year to clinch a playoff berth. 

Unfortunately, the team came out flat and visibly uninspired. The Chargers will field one of the best offensive lines in the league to protect star quarterback Philip Rivers. Rivers puts up great numbers when his line is leak-free, but when hurried makes ill-advised throws. 

The Chargers’ starting back, Ryan Mathews, is competent but has had attacks of fumblitis. Tight end Antonio Gates is a threat; when healthy; and gained 778 yards and seven TDs despite injury last year. It’s not a stretch to predict that a fumble or two from Mathews, an interception of Rivers or a missing Gates could easily put this one within the Raiders’ reach. 

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