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Capsule

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Last season: 8-8, third place AFC Central.

Coach: Brian Billick (8-8), second year with Ravens.

Strength of schedule: The Ravens have the 18th-toughest schedule in the NFL this season, and third-toughest in the division behind Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Ravens' opponents this season went a combined 127-129 (.496) last year. They'll face four teams that had winning seasons in 1999, and five teams that went to the playoffs. That formidable lineup also includes five of the first seven games on the road. Once through that, the Ravens get six of nine at home.

Starting quarterback: Tony Banks, who started the last 10 games in 1999, returns as starter. He's got a four-year NFL record of 20-33, including 6-4 with the Ravens.

Best move: The signing of free-agent tight end Shannon Sharpe was the most significant move of the off-season, because it provided the offense not only with an intermediate-range target, but also a proven winner and leader as well. Even though he's in his 11th NFL season, Sharpe, 32, is in excellent physical condition and can deliver what the Ravens want him to do.

Missing piece: When the Ravens cut veteran Jeff Blackshear last February, they committed to unproven Mike Flynn at right guard. Flynn had a fine preseason, but it remains to be seen how he'll handle the demands of the regular season.

Pressure's on: The offensive line. Left guard Edwin Mulitalo, a promising second-year player, is learning on the job. Flynn, who missed two preseason games with a foot injury, is further behind. Left tackle Jonathan Ogden is probably the best in the business, and center Jeff Mitchell has arrived as a force. Right tackle Harry Swayne, in his 14th year, may no longer be a 16-game starter, but is solid. Protecting Banks and running backs Priest Holmes and Jamal Lewis is the issue.

Biggest question: Can Banks shed his erratic past and embrace his potential? If he can, the Ravens are a playoff team. If he can't, Trent Dilfer gets a shot to answer his critics. For the first time in his NFL career, Banks has a full complement of skill-position weapons.

Key statistic: The Ravens were last in the NFL in 1999 with a 28.4 percent conversion rate on third down. No team is going to the playoffs with a rate like that.

Ticket to Tampa: For the first time since the team moved from Cleveland in 1996, the Ravens won't get laughed at talking about the Super Bowl. In today's NFL, as was demonstrated by the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans a year ago, a good team can make the quantum leap. For it to happen here, Banks needs a Pro Bowl season, Lewis and Travis Taylor have to become impact players as rookies and the defense must play at a higher level. It's not so far-fetched.

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