Much has been made about the tough early schedule that the Ravens face: the road opener at Denver against a recharged Peyton Manning, four games on the West Coast in the season's first seven weeks, five of the first seven on the road, three games against AFC North foes in a 15-day span from late September to early October.
But the silver lining for the Ravens is if they can get through their first eight weeks with a decent record, they should be primed to make a run at winning their division, an accomplishment that has been elusive in recent years.
A Week 9 bye is an ideal break before the second half. The four-game stretch that follows the bye week – home against Jacksonville and St. Louis and then road games at Cleveland and Miami – represents the most relenting quarter of the Ravens' schedule. The Ravens then have three of their final four games at home, where they've been dominant over the years.
The Steelers' final six games are at Seattle, home against Indianapolis, at Cincinnati, home versus Denver, at the Ravens and at Cleveland. That's five of their final six against 2014 playoff teams and four of their final six on the road.
The Bengals' final four games are home against the Steelers, at the 49ers, at the Broncos and home against the Ravens. Cincinnati also has one four-game stretch early in the season when they play the Ravens on the road, the Kansas City Chiefs and Seahawks at home and then the Buffalo Bills on the road.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh won't use his team's difficult schedule as an excuse, nor should anybody else. The other AFC North contenders have their own scheduling challenges. Such is life in a year where the AFC North matches up with the highly-competitive AFC and NFC West divisions.
Looking toward '16
Last week's long-term deals for Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas weakened what had the potential to be a star-studded 2016 wide receiver free agent class. Why does that matter for the Ravens?
It may not. Steve Smith Sr. could opt to play more than one more season. First-round NFL draft pick Breshad Perriman could flash the potential of a No. 1 wide receiver. Marlon Brown and Kamar Aiken could both have strong years.
The Ravens might not be in the market for a wide receiver at all next offseason. However, there is a good chance that they will be, especially if Smith decides to retire, as many people believe he will.
Obviously, there's a lot that can happen between now and next offseason and such a conversation is six months premature. But given that Smith is 36 years old and the rest of the team's wide receiver core is very young, and that the Ravens are seemingly in the market for another pass catcher every offseason, it seems harmless to look ahead.
A.J. Green and Julio Jones could both be free agents in 2016, but it's hard to believe that the Cincinnati Bengals or Atlanta Falcons will let either hit the open market. They are probably two of the top five receivers in the game. That would leave a free agent wide receiver class headed by Alshon Jeffery, T.Y. Hilton and former Raven Anquan Boldin, who might opt to retire.
The Ravens don't traditionally spend big on outside free agents and they don't figure to have a whole lot of salary cap room next offseason, anyway. But it's at least worth monitoring potentially-available wide receivers during the coming season.
An ex-Colt in Baltimore?
Baltimore Ravens Insider
Speaking of free agent wide receivers, Reggie Wayne, who will not return to the Colts after 14 seasons, told reporters last week that he remains intent on playing in 2015 and teams have been calling to express interest.
The Ravens are a magnet for speculation about veteran receivers, largely because of past acquisitions of guys like Derrick Mason, Lee Evans, Boldin and Smith. And I'd imagine they'd appeal to Wayne, who is reportedly looking to sign with a contender and a team with an established quarterback.
I wouldn't think that the Ravens would be a fit, however. They already have a 36-year-old receiver in Smith, along with a couple of other possession receivers that they want to see in more prominent roles. I'd never dismiss general manager Ozzie Newsome giving an opportunity to an accomplished and well-respected vet, but I'm not sure that there is a real need at this point.
The Jacksonville Jaguars moved on from wide receiver-kick returner Ace Sanders, a 2013 fourth-round draft pick, last week. Sanders can be claimed on waivers and he could be an interesting option for the Ravens, because of his return experience.
The Ravens are unsettled in their return game after letting go of Jacoby Jones. However, the Ravens are seemingly comfortable with their internal options, which include Lardarius Webb, DeAndre Carter, Michael Campanaro and Asa Jackson.
I've said this before, but the Ravens don't want to use one of their valuable 53-man, gameday roster spots on just a return man. So players like Carter, Campanaro and Jackson are going to have to make the team primarily because of their ability to contribute on offense and defense. The return skills are just a bonus.