The pick here is 8-8 -- and that's probably optimistic.
The Ravens aren't an elite team. They might not even be a good team. But they should be a better team than the one that finished 6-9-1 last season, even if their record doesn't reflect significant improvement.
Yes, the new stadium will generate excitement. Yes, the defensive front seven will keep most games close. Yes, Jim Harbaugh will exorcise the Ghost of Vinny.
But a playoff team? Not yet.
The schedule is too tough.
The skill players aren't good enough.
In today's NFL, that's a lethal combination for a coach in the final year of his contract.
The Ravens' first eight games are so difficult, it's not inconceivable that they could go 2-6. Somehow, Ted Marchibroda needs to keep them rolling, and take advantage of the soft part of the schedule in November and December.
Errict Rhett over Jay Graham?
That's a start.
Still, the issue isn't the coach, even if Marchibroda ultimately gets tagged the scapegoat. This season looks promising when viewed as the third year of a five-year plan. But everyone is talking playoffs, including Marchibroda.
To win in the NFL, you need dominant players at the offensive skill positions -- quarterback, running back, wide receiver. The Ravens have none, which is why so many preseason publications project them finishing last.
True, Harbaugh and Marchibroda came within one play of taking Indianapolis to the Super Bowl three years ago, but what are the odds that lightning will strike again?
The NFL champion 1958 Colts had John Unitas, Alan Ameche and Raymond Berry. The Colts of the late '70s had Bert Jones, Lydell Mitchell and even Roger Carr.
Harbaugh has taken his teams to the playoffs six times in 11
seasons, but he turns 35 in December, risks injury every time he scrambles and lacks the arm strength to stretch defenses.
Graham is the running back of the future, yet he couldn't hold off the solid but unspectacular Rhett. Jermaine Lewis gets hurt too often to be considered a dominant receiver. Michael Jackson was once close to that level, but no more.
Ideally, though, the Ravens won't ask much of their new two-back offense. They want to play smash-mouth football, with their defense controlling games, and their offense scoring just enough to win.
Can it happen?
Maybe, if their offensive line is as good as it thinks it is. Maybe, if the defensive front seven masks deficiencies in the secondary. Maybe, if Harbaugh provides a fourth-quarter edge for a team that lost six games last season by a total of 15 points.
The problem is, 12 of the Ravens' 16 games are against teams from the NFL's two toughest divisions -- the AFC Central and NFC Central. A year ago, they went 3-5 in their own division, and 2-1-1 against the weak NFC East.
That schedule was tied for the league's 16th strongest; this one is tied for 11th. The ranking is based on opponents' winning percentage in the previous season. For Pittsburgh, the team with the toughest schedule, it was .551. For the Ravens, it was .504 -- but .615 in the first eight games.
Pittsburgh is the first test, Pittsburgh on Sunday. The Ravens' offensive line, coming off a mediocre preseason, will face a defense that ranked No. 1 against the run in '97. The defense, such a force in August, will face Stewart, Bettis and Co.
Under Bill Cowher, the Steelers are 9-3 against the Browns/Ravens franchise, 8-1 since October 1993. They've outscored the Ravens 72-10 in the last six quarters. Anything is possible, but is Team Modell that much improved?
Hard to imagine.
Week 2 is the home opener for Curtis Martin and the New York Jets, all fired up after a likely defeat in San Francisco. Week 3 is a journey to Jacksonville, where the Jaguars are 14-2 at home the last two seasons.
From there, the Ravens get a slight breather -- home games against Cincinnati and Tennessee, with the bye week in between. But then comes another killer troika -- at Pittsburgh, at Green Bay, home vs. Jacksonville.
No other team will play back-to-back road contests against opponents that reached conference championship games last season.
The good news?
If the Ravens are 3-5 at the midpoint, they'll be in contention.
They'll face two rookie quarterbacks in the second half, the hapless Chicago Bears on the road, three dome teams at home && after Thanksgiving. The winning percentage of their final eight opponents was .375 last season. For Arizona, the team with the weakest schedule, the overall percentage was .453.
The season hinges on whether the Ravens can survive the first half. The future hinges on whether they can develop a franchise quarterback and running back. When your biggest offensive star is the left tackle, you're not going to the Super Bowl anytime soon.
Pub Date: 9/04/98