There seems but one safe bet when it comes to NFL football, and that is that there are no safe bets when it comes to NFL football. Every year though, we as fans tend to forget that anything can and usually does happen, that teams summarily written off before the season starts routinely find themselves in contention, and that teams who we expect to contend often come up short.
As Ravens fans find themselves up in arms at the team’s lack of big splash movements in free agency and point to several apparent weaknesses that the team will have to deal with in 2011, it’s also fair to remember that at this time last year fans were touting the projected strength of the newly stocked receiving corps, and the offensive line as the team’s greatest assets, and expectations were that Ray Rice would have a top 5 fantasy season to follow up his efforts in 2009. Additionally fans were concerned (and rightly so) about the defensive backfield, about Terrell Suggs ability or desire to pressure the QB, and about whether Ed Reed would ever return to the playmaking form that had defined his NFL career. Hindsight tells us that we were dead wrong on all of the aforementioned accounts.
The Ravens are counting, it would seem, on lots of guys to step up this year and play bigger roles. If the Ravens are to make a big improvement from last year to this, it appears that it won’t be on the back of big splash acquisitions. Instead, they’ll need bigger contributions from returning contributors like Joe Flacco and Ray Rice, coaches will be called on to up their games too (John Harbaugh and Cam Cameron), minimal contributor from previous seasons like Paul Kruger, Dennis Pitta, Ed Dickson and Terrence Cody will need to expand their respective roles and values to the team in 2011, and newcomers to the mix like Jimmy and Torrey Smith, Jah Reid and Sergio Kindle will serve as the team’s greatest potential influx of talent.
All of that said, the Ravens might not have been able to pick a better season in which to endorse that philosophy than this one upcoming. Without off-season work, as a result of the lockout, it seems an easy conclusion that teams maintaining the greatest levels of continuity from last year to this will be at an inherent competitive advantage. Teams that are building on successful seasons from last year while maintaining that continuity would seem further set up for success, but all of that aside, the schedule more than anything seems to make it a likely assumption that the Ravens will be playing post-season football for a 4th straight season when the ball drops on the 2011 campaign.
As schedules go, the Ravens couldn’t have drawn one up for themselves much more favorable than the 2011 campaign projects to be. One thing that has been consistent throughout the Harbaugh era in Baltimore is that the Ravens have generally beaten the teams they’re supposed to, and likewise have generally lost to the teams that look more challenging on paper. That said, as the Bengals and Browns look to rebuild on the fly, the Ravens should be counting their opportunities against those two as four likely wins. Likewise, their opportunity to take advantage of a less than stellar NFC West could and should set the stage for 4 more wins. Three more wins against the AFC South and the Ravens could be sitting at 11 wins on the year with games against Pittsburgh (2), San Diego and the Jets. While none of those are foregone conclusions by any stretch of the imagination, the Ravens likelihood for the playoffs might all but be.
That said, the division’s other powerhouse (Pittsburgh) seems to be looking at a similar convergence of circumstances making them likely for the playoffs as well. If indeed both teams are able to (mostly) hold form through the 12 games they share in common, then the 2 uncommon opponents and the teams’ two head-to-head match-ups will likely determine where a 3rd meeting between the 2 in the last 4 playoffs would take place.
When they lock horns on September 11th, it seems a safe conclusion that the game will be of more importance to the Ravens than to the Steelers. It’s the Ravens who will be looking to exorcise the demons of January 15, 2011 and the blown 21-7 lead on the Heinz field turf. It’ll be the Ravens much more than the Steelers in need of a confidence boost and a solid start to the season. Both teams will be in the playoffs when the dust settles regardless of the outcome of that game (mark it down) and if this season ends for the Ravens at the hands of their rivals again, for the 3rd time in 4 seasons, it will all have been for naught in the first place. But a win for either team will certainly go a long way toward determining where such a game would be played.