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The gap between 49ers, Raiders is closer than you think

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Can Reuben Foster (56) usher in a new era of 49ers defense? (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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And other questionable conditional statements

On paper, the Oakland Raiders are a football team ready for the biggest stage.

After all, as common wisdom holds, if it weren’t for an inopportune injury to Derek Carr last season, the Silver and Black would’ve been near shoo-ins for the AFC Championship.

Having the face of the franchise go down in the last weekend of the season is a sick twist of fate, for sure, but you can’t overlook how they got to that point. (To say nothing of the fact that Brock Osweiler — a quarterback who couldn’t make the Cleveland Browns roster despite significant financial incentive to keep him around — was allowed to play his best game of his career as a starter in the Wild Card game).

Ten of the Raiders’ 11 wins last season were by 10 points of fewer. Is that really a sustainable model?

And that’s just one of several questions surrounding the East Bay’s NFL team (for a limited time only):

— Will Donald Penn’s holdout have an adverse effect on one of the better offensive line in the league last season?

— Are the fans, the best in the league, going to be cool with the fact that Mark Davis’ group is leaving?

— Can Khalil Mack continue to win games by himself?

They’re obviously the superior Bay Area team for now. But for how long?

Down in Santa Clara, there’s new energy after Jed York finally jettisoned Trent Baalke and brought in a pair of professionals that can grow as a young unit together. If nothing else, it’ll be exciting — something Chip Kelly’s frenetic offense couldn’t provide.

And what if I told you that the Raiders drew the fourth most-difficult schedule in the NFL, according to 2016 records? Meanwhile, the 49ers’ opponents had a combined winning percent under .500 last season.

It isn’t a certainty, because nothing is in a league that basically distills down to a war of attrition. But don’t be surprised if the 49ers finish within two games of the Raiders in the standings.

Ready the rookies

Today’s game between the 49ers and the Carolina Panthers in Santa Clara should be interesting for several reasons.

First, say the Niners pull off the upset: Vegas has set the over/under line of jokes your uncle makes comparing Kyle Shanahan to Jim Tomsula/Kelly at 6.5.

But what it would really mean is that the youngsters on the 49ers’ roster are the real deal.

“You always address the elephant in the room: I know people feel pressure and have some nerves,” Shanahan told reporters on Friday. “Usually, that goes once the game starts.”

All eyes will be on rookie linebacker Reuben Foster, who had one of the best preseasons of any linebacker in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.

He’ll be tested early against former Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, who will put stress on the whole defense with his route-running and versatility out of the backfield.

NaVorro Bowman promised he’d ease some of Foster’s burden in that assignment, and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh gave the veteran a vote of confidence in that regard on Thursday. If the pair of linebackers succeed, it would signal a new era of 49ers defense.

After missing most of the 2016 season with an Achilles injury, Bowman is eager to prove his doubters wrong. He doesn’t want to hear that he’s lost a step. He just wants to get out there and hit people again.

Foster is the kind of talent that could rejuvenate Bowman’s career like NaVorro did for Patrick Willis. It won’t lead to the same kind of success, because Jim Harbaugh won’t be on the sideline maximizing everyone’s talents and ensuring his team wins at the point of attack, but it would be a welcome change.

But that’s why they play the games, to turn these if-then statements into reality. Kickoff can’t come soon enough.

Contact Examiner Sports Editor Jacob C. Palmer at jpalmer@sfexaminer.com or on Twitter, @jacobc_palmer.

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