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The return of the Ravens

What a difference a year makes. One year ago, the National Football League was immersed in embarrassing courtroom controversies over a couple of all-pro running backs who acted badly off the field and how shamefully the league handled those cases. This year, it's been a fight over the behavior of an all-pro quarterback that ended up in a courtroom and how shamefully Commissioner Roger Goodell has botched the "Deflategate" incident on almost every level.

See? Completely different.

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Welcome to the 2015-2016 NFL season, which couldn't come too soon for Baltimore sports fans. Not only do the Orioles appear to be out of the playoffs this season after last year's remarkable run to the American League Championship Series, but the Ravens' preseason was such a dispiriting affair (1 win, 2 losses and 1 massacre at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles) that "real" football is needed stat — you know, the kind where the starters play more than a few minutes — or the patient/sports fan may soon be found slumped in his Barcalounger talking more like Edgar Allen Poe's raven than the gridiron variety.

That the NFL is once again mired in controversy — and don't for a minute think that the danger of life-threatening concussions has been resolved either — should come as no surprise. The league has become the Donald Trump of sports institutions — extremely rich, very loud, often wrong, yet quite popular despite itself. You can bet that more people than ever will be tuning in to see what lunacy takes place next.

In Maryland, we couldn't ask for a better perch. As a state, we may be home to the league's best and its worst. Sports Illustrated has the Ravens winning the Super Bowl this season while ESPN pegs the Washington Redskins as the team least likely to make it to the big game, ranking them 32 out of 32 in its "power rankings." And although the Redskins may claim to be a D.C. team, let us not forget they play their home games in Landover, Md., just 34 miles away from the Baltimore Ravens' M&T Bank Stadium.

Don't even get the average football fan started on how woeful that franchise to the south has become, from the owner's steadfast insistence that the name isn't racist no matter who objects to it to the sudden demotion of Robert Griffin III, better known as RGIII, the one-time savior of professional football in the nation's capital, to third string status. Rarely has a back-up's back-up ever been associated with the league's top-selling jersey, as RGIII's coveted Number 10 turned out to be two seasons ago.

Of course, the predictions of sportswriters are reliably unreliable. Last season, ESPN forecast a Denver-San Francisco Super Bowl. At least three different Sports Illustrated writers expected the New England Patriots to be in the Super Bowl. OK, OK, that was actually spot-on, but did any of those three anticipate quarterback Tom Brady would be accused of instructing team employees to reduce the air pressure in the footballs used in the AFC Championship? Hah, thought not.

One reason for optimism in Baltimore is that the competitive juices seem to be flowing, particularly from Coach John Harbaugh. Just ask sideline reporter Brent Harris, who got a taste of it in preseason. The passionate us-against-the-world vibe has long been a staple of Ravens football, and the fire has been fueled by the tough schedule handed down by the league. (Sunday's opener is in Denver, a team that rarely loses at home, aside from their last game there, a playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, or perhaps the double-overtime loss to the Ravens in 2013.) The lack of depth at wide receiver and uncertainty over the defensive secondary may give fans pause, but worse deficits have been overcome.

Make no mistake, NFL football is a messy business, but, as we noted at the start of the Major League Baseball season, Baltimore could really use the sense of community and common purpose that cheering for the hometown heroes provides after the divisive struggles we have endured. Purple Fridays aren't just a fashion statement but about a shared life experience. From Eldersburg to West Baltimore, the Eastern Shore to Ellicott City, Ravens Nation is ready for another high-flying season — and the common ground that comes with it.

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