The Baltimore Sun

As the regular season draws near, every NFL team will talk about the importance of getting off to a fast start.

But the Ravens desperately need one if they are to have any shot at returning to the playoffs.

The season begins with a smooth road - over the first 10 games, the Ravens face only one team that had a winning record last season - before reaching a series of bumps never seen before in team history.

Starting at the end of November, the Ravens meet the other three defending AFC division winners (the San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts) in consecutive weeks. Each of the division champions plays the others the next season, but the Ravens are the only team to face all three in consecutive weeks.

It's a grueling chunk of games that will hang over the Ravens through most of the season.

"The team has to start fast," defensive lineman Trevor Pryce said this offseason. "We have some games the first half of the season that you feel pretty good about, and then there's a stretch that we call 'Murderers' Row' that is right in the middle of the season. It's like, 'How do you do this?' and 'Why did we get that draw?'"

Pryce then added with a grin, "The NFL hates us."

At least the NFL, which determines the schedules, is giving the Ravens a chance to go into those games with some confidence.

After opening the season Monday night in Cincinnati, the Ravens should be favored for the next three games: home against the New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals and at the Cleveland Browns.

The Ravens then play three teams (the San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams and Buffalo Bills) that have combined for one winning season in the past three years before reaching the bye in Week 8.

November brings a stretch against the AFC North, when the Ravens play at Pittsburgh and home against the Bengals and Browns.

"Sure, you can say the first part of the schedule has some serious potential," kicker Matt Stover said. "But I'm going to say - as a veteran who has lost those games that they shouldn't have - to be very, very careful."

After that favorable 10-game run to open the season, there is no chance that the Ravens will overlook what's next.

The Ravens play at San Diego on Nov. 25 before facing New England and Indianapolis at M&T; Bank Stadium.

Those three teams combined were 38-10 last season.

"We've been down this road before," coach Brian Billick said.

Billick pointed to the end of 2004, when the Ravens faced three eventual division winners (New England, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh) on the road, although not in consecutive weeks. The Ravens, who began that season 7-3, lost four of their last six games and missed the playoffs.

On paper, this season's three-game span will be much tougher. Only two other AFC teams (the Colts and Tennessee Titans) play 2006 playoff teams in three straight weeks.

"That's going to be a great, great test," Stover said. "As a guy who has been through that type of schedule, the great teams are the ones who can fight through them."

It doesn't get much easier in the stretch run, when the Ravens travel to Miami and Seattle - the two NFL cities the farthest apart - in back-to-back weeks and play Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale.

That's why the Ravens need to build momentum in the first half of the season to survive the second half.

Said linebacker Bart Scott: "You don't want to look back late in the year, thinking that was the game that kept us out of the playoffs or locking up the division."


Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad