A FAST START IS IMPERATIVE: There are no pushovers anymore in the NFL, especially not for a team that went 5-11 last season and has struggled on the road. However, the Ravens probably couldn't have asked for a more favorable first half of the season. Just one of their first seven opponents made the playoffs last season, and the Ravens will host the one exception, the Washington Redskins. The Ravens' longest trip during that span is a two-hour flight to Jacksonville. Sure, the Buffalo Bills should be improved in Year Two under Rex Ryan, and the Jaguars and Oakland Raiders are viewed as teams on the cusp of a breakout. The New York Giants seemingly spent a billion dollars in free agency, so they should be better, too. But all those games should be winnable. For a team with a quarterback coming off a significant knee injury and a roster that should be pretty well stocked with young players needing to grow into roles, a less-than-rigorous start might be just what the doctor ordered.
PRIME TIME IS NOT ALWAYS THE BEST TIME: I'm sure there are plenty of Ravens' fans ticked off that the team is scheduled to play only two prime-time games with none of them coming on Sunday night. It's the fewest prime-time games on the Ravens' original schedule since 2006. That certainly was the focus on my story about the schedule release. However, I doubt there were any tears shed at the front office and coaching levels at the Under Armour Performance Center. Night games, specifically ones on the road, often lead to altered practice schedules and changes in routine. It's a great stage and players traditionally love playing in prime time, but it does the coaching staff no favors. Last season, eight of the Ravens' 16 games were initially scheduled for 4 p.m. or later. This season, 13 of their 16 games are set to kick off at 1 p.m. The modest travel and the consistent earlier afternoon games should allow the Ravens to get into a nice groove.
FIVE GAME STRETCH AFTER BYE WILL DEFINE RAVENS SEASON: Much of the focus has been on the final quarter of the Ravens' regular season: at New England Patriots (Dec. 12), vs. Philadelphia Eagles (Dec. 18), at Pittsburgh Steelers (Dec. 25) and at Cincinnati Bengals (Jan. 1). It's a brutal stretch. However, the Ravens could make it less crucial by defending their home field in four of the five games following the Week Eight bye. The Ravens will host the Steelers (Nov. 6), the Cleveland Browns (Nov. 10), the Bengals (Nov. 27), and the Miami Dolphins (Dec. 4). They'll also have a road game at Dallas (Nov. 20) during that stretch. Between that five-game span, and the Ravens relatively forgiving start, the team could bank enough wins to give themselves some margin of error over the final four games. They'll probably need it.
THE AFC NORTH RACE WILL GO DOWN TO THE WIRE: The Ravens play five of their six divisional games after Week Eight. The same is true with the Steelers. The Bengals and Browns play four of their six AFC North games in the regular season's second half. The back-loading of divisional games on the schedule could make things pretty interesting in November and December if the Bengals, Steelers and Ravens are all in position for a playoff run.
HOW ABOUT MIXING THINGS UP A BIT: Look, I get that making the NFL schedule is a difficult task. There's no possible way to satisfy everyone, but what exactly is the point of having the Ravens finish every regular season in Cincinnati? It's become a given every year. The upcoming season will mark the fifth time in the past six seasons where the Ravens will be at Paul Brown Stadium in Week 17. Having divisional games to end the regular season is understandable, because it allows for the possibility that a division title or playoff berth could be on the line. However, there are two other teams in the AFC North. There is no reason for the same matchup at the same stadium year-after-year.