When the 2020 NFL schedule came out, wins and losses already were being penciled in despite the games being five months away.
The Raiders were given no favors during their inaugural Las Vegas season. The New Orleans Saints visit in Week 2 for the Allegiant Stadium opener and four of the Silver and Black's first six games are against likely playoff-bound opponents. In order to make the playoffs, it is imperative for the Raiders to tread water in the early going before the easier part of their schedule kicks in around mid-November.
Staying afloat early on got a little more difficult Sunday when the New England Patriots reportedly agreed to a one-year contract with Cam Newton, who is expected to come in and compete for the starting quarterback position along with Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer. Let's be honest, if Newton is fully healthy after shoulder surgery in January of 2019 and a Lisfranc injury last season, he easily should beat out Stidham, a fourth-round pick who has thrown four career passes, and Hoyer.
A healthy Newton gives Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels a versatile, dynamic playmaker to mold the offense around who still is in his prime at age 31. The addition of Newton throws a wrench into what the Raiders hoped would be another leap forward in Year 3 of Jon Gruden's second reign and a playoff berth.
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Newton joining the Patriots obviously makes a Week 3 trip to Gillette Stadium more perilous for the Raiders, who have to open at Carolina in Week 1 before heading back to Vegas to face Drew Brees and the Saints in Week 2. Heading back on a plane to go to the Northeast and face Newton, one of the most unique and versatile quarterbacks in the modern era, sounds a lot less enjoyable than going to face Stidham in his third career start.
There's the possibility that in Week 3, Newton still will be rusty and the Patriots' offense will not have jelled around its new signal-caller. It's a game the Raiders, with a revamped defense and more dynamic offense, absolutely can win.
But Newton's signing with the Patriots presents a bigger roadblock to the Raiders' postseason hopes than just a Week 3 game. There's no doubt that 10 a.m. Sept. 27 game is a bigger question mark than it was previously and increases the possibility of the Raiders starting the 2020 season in a hole they'll have to dig themselves out of.
But it also adds another AFC team to the mix for the third wild-card spot. Before Belichick scooped up Newton, the Buffalo Bills generally were viewed as the only team in the AFC worthy of playoff consideration, barring an unexpectedly successful season from the New York Jets or Miami Dolphins or a massive improvement from Stidham.
With the Kansas City Chiefs ruling the AFC West, the Raiders were expected to battle for one of the three wild-card positions with six other teams (Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Chargers; two of the Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans; and two of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns). The AFC East was expected to send its winner to the postseason and that was it. Write it in ink.
That no longer is the case with Newton taking the snaps in Foxboro. He should, in theory, make the Patriots a threat to win the division yet again and add another team to the pool of opponents the Raiders must beat out for a wild-card spot. It also puts added importance on both the Raiders' Week 3 game against the Patriots and their Week 4 game against the Bills, as a win in those games would give them the edge in any tiebreaker scenario. As the Raiders learned last season, that becomes important with so many teams jockeying for a ticket to the dance.
The Raiders were greater than the sum of their parts in 2019. They went 7-9 with a 5-11 roster. The roster is much better in 2020 and has many seeing another jump forward on the horizon.
A two-game improvement will get them to 9-7 and in the playoff picture. But the AFC is loaded with good teams who expect to be in the mix along with the Silver and Black.
A new playoff contender emerged Sunday when Belichick and Newton's marriage was announced. The Raiders' path to nine or 10 wins becomes more difficult with the 2015 NFL MVP on the schedule in Week 3, and their road to the playoffs more treacherous with games against Newton, Brees, Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady in four of their first six games.
Week 3 in Foxboro has become all the more important with the Patriots entering the playoff contender picture. A Raiders win not only would give them the tiebreaker over Belichick and Newton, but it also would give them better odds of exiting their Week 7 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers without their heads fully underwater.
Gruden and the Raiders should be thinking playoffs in 2020. But they'll really have to earn it with Newton, if healthy, and the Patriots now entering the postseason equation.