A term heard in some of the NFL front offices I had the pleasure of working in was the opening-weekend refrain of, “Happy New Year!” All of the work of the offseason, from free agency, to the draft, to workouts and minicamps, and finally training camp and preseason come to an end Sunday as the games start for real.
The long wait for Sunday tailgates, seeing old friends in the stands and paying closer attention to the roster in the game program is just about upon the fans. The players and coaches act a little differently than they do before a preseason game. Instead of idle and sometimes boisterous chatter of players in August, silence rules in September as players dress listening to their own inspirational music as the minutes tick down to kickoff. Coaches make final notes and go through the locker room, sizing up the players and checking on last-minute details.
Pregame warm-ups have an edge. Players steal a glance down the field at the opposing team going through the same drills. Head coaches exchange pleasantries about the weather, the offseason golf outings, the family, anything but the game ahead of them.
When the teams leave the field and go back to the locker room 20 minutes before the start of the game, coordinators meet with the players once last time. After a knock on the locker room door by the game officials, giving them the two-minute warning for introductions, the head coach brings the entire group together and gives them some easy things to remember in order to win before helmets are strapped on and the players make the short walk to the tunnel at the edge of the field.
It is the most nerve-wracking time of the entire season. Nervous energy ripples through the players as they think about the 16 games ahead of them, none more important than the first one. Finally, it’s time to be introduced, and with the crowd firmly in their ears, it’s a sprint onto the field and into the 2008 season.
With the stirring music of NFL Films as the backdrop, let’s look at the Ravens’ opener with Marvin Lewis’ Bengals.
NUMBERS TO NOTE: The Bengals have had Baltimore’s number recently with a 6-1 record in the last seven meetings, including 3-1 in M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens will try to reverse a history of opening-day problems, as Baltimore is 4-8 in season-openers, the worst percentage among current AFC teams. Since 1978, when the NFL went to the 16-game schedule, and excluding the abbreviated 1982 season, 225 of the 426 opening-game winners went to the playoffs with 130 division titles. Only 99 of the 426 losers went to the playoffs with 55 division titles.
THE RAVENS WILL WIN IF: The Ravens can establish the run game early, max protect rookie starter Joe Flacco and win the time-of-possession battle. The way to keep pressure off Flacco is to not have him and the offense in second-and-long and third-and-long spots too many times. He will have to make some throws, but early confidence and moving the chains will help to keep the Bengals under 10 possessions. Finally, someone other than Matt Stover has to score for the Ravens on offense.
THE BENGALS WILL WIN IF: The revamped Ravens offensive line can’t either hold back the expected blitzes on Flacco, or open holes for the backs to make the Bengals respect the run and back off the blitz package. Chad Ocho Cinco (nee Johnson) loves to play the Ravens, as his 86.3-yard receiving average in the last three games against Baltimore will attest. A defense with many question marks will look to not give Palmer a lot of time to find Johnson and other receivers deep.
HOW I SEE IT: The enthusiasm is high in the Ravens’ facility for John Harbaugh’s opening campaign. The offense Cam Cameron will unveil in the opener is one of the big unknowns, along with the man entrusted to run it at the start, Flacco. On the plus side, Baltimore is capable of scoring 17 points against a Bengals defense that does give up yardage, but the Ravens’ defense might not be able to hold Cincy down under that number over 60 minutes. Flacco throws for one TD and Ray Rice runs for one, but Cincinnati 24, Baltimore 14.