The Baltimore Sun

The word on the street - and, to be honest, I'm not really sure which street I'm referring to - is that it might be a bit presumptuous of football fans around Baltimore to place the Ravens in the same class as the three supposed super teams of the AFC.

Most of the preseason prognosticators are ready to hand the Lombardi Trophy to the New England Patriots right now. (I heard Bill Belichick is already polishing it with his old sweatshirt.) And, if not the Patriots, then the reigning champion Indianapolis Colts or the San Diego Chargers.

I don't have a bad thing to say about any of those teams, other than that they're all overrated and that Ravens fans have no reason to apologize for trying to corner the market on cheap airline tickets to and from Phoenix during the days leading up to and after the Super Bowl.

Don't laugh. I went to one of the major airline Web sites and found a lot of the discount fares from BWI to PHX sold out, which can mean one of two things: Lots of Patriots fans are planning to fly through Baltimore on their way west or Ravens fans are betting with their Visa cards that Steve McNair and Co. can get it done this year.

(By the way, I also checked the availability from Indianapolis and found Colts fans aren't quite as confident. Either that or they're planning to go to Glendale, Ariz., in Mayflower trucks. Didn't bother to check anything out of San Diego, since you can hitchhike from there.)

The rest of the football world is not so sure the Ravens deserve to be ranked among the NFL's truly elite teams. ESPN has them ranked fifth in its Web site power rankings, behind - gasp! - an NFC team (the Chicago Bears), and everyone knows you can't be an elite NFL team if you're not better than the entire NFC. If that isn't enough national skepticism for you, SI.com picked the Ravens to reach the playoffs as a wild-card team.

Maybe we're splitting hairs here, since the Ravens still are getting a fair amount of respect around the country. Most of the experts think they're a playoff team. Shouldn't that be good enough when you haven't played a regular-season game yet?

The short answer, of course, is no. When you've spent the baseball season developing an inferiority complex the size of Jared Gaither, you need more than just the perfunctory props. Glad I could help.

The Ravens went 13-3 last season before dropping a fluky playoff game to the eventual Super Bowl champions. They return with much the same team to face a tougher schedule, but that should not keep them from being the best team in the AFC North.

Certainly, the departure of Adalius Thomas is going to hurt, but the defense is plenty good enough to take that hit. The offense should be more productive with McNair a year into the program and versatile Willis McGahee in the backfield instead of Jamal Lewis, though it would have been nice to see some sign of that in the preseason.

Monday night's opener in Cincinnati could be trouble, but the schedule is heavily back-loaded, which should allow the Ravens to get off to a solid start. That will be critical, since the Ravens play five formidable teams - the Chargers, Patriots, Colts, Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers - over the final six weeks of the regular season.

They'll be just fine. The advantage of a back-loaded schedule is that everybody has taken some lumps by December. Some of those teams will not be at full strength. The Ravens have to hope they are, but that goes for everyone else with a realistic shot of sniffing cactus in February.

Most everyone is predicting the Ravens will be somewhere in the hunt. The question is whether they're equipped to build on last season's success and take it to the next level.

I think so and I'm not alone, but keep in mind that we titled this year's NFL preview section "Fantastic Four." Imagine how it would have looked if the fourth team were the Bears instead of the Ravens.


Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Saturdays and Sundays.

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