The Ravens once again were dealt a schedule that stacks three divisional opponents in the first three games, the third time that AFC North teams occupy the first three spots on their schedule in 10 years, and the team recognizes the stakes.
A Week 1 home date with the Cincinnati Bengals, then a quick turnaround for a Thursday night showdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers before a Week 3 matchup against the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 21 could provide the team with a comfortable divisional cushion, or bury the team's hopes of returning to the playoffs before the calendar turns to October.
"We understand the challenge in front of us," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We have to open up with three division games. We'd want to win all three games no matter who we were opening up with. [We will take it] one at a time, but the fact that division games are so valuable — so important — and to open up with three right in a row … I know that the three opponents are feeling the same way about those games. Those are going to be hard-fought, highly contested football games."
For Harbaugh, the schedule is a familiar one. In 2008, his first year as head coach, the Ravens played Cincinnati in Week 1, then Cleveland and Pittsburgh consecutively after a Week 2 bye. The team emerged from that stretch 3-1 and earned a wild-card playoff spot with a 9-7 record.
Harbaugh said experience from that is one of several that he and the staff has used entering this season.
"We always glean stuff from what we learn, from one year to the next," Harbaugh said. "The things we probably learned in the past about Thursday night games and bye-week games and all those kinds of things — we definitely apply those to our schedule. We have a really good plan. We just have to see how it plays out."
In the past 10 seasons, five other teams have opened with three divisional opponents, and only one, the 2006 Chicago Bears, started 3-0 and ultimately made the playoffs. Only one other team has started with three division games since the Ravens did in 2008, and that team, the 2009 Oakland Raiders, lost two of three games and finished last in the AFC West at 5-11.
The Ravens also opened with three divisional opponents in 2004.
Former coach Brian Billick, who went 2-1 during that stretch and dealt the Steelers their only regular-season loss in the process, said the front loaded division schedule is by design, and teams with veteran cores can fare better than younger teams.
Coaches and players will tell you that all they can do is play who they're scheduled to play, Billick said, but the Thursday night wrinkle makes this situation unique for the Ravens.
"That can be a benefit as well, if you could somehow sweep those two and have that mini-break," Billick said. "You open up with the division and you're kind of staking your claim early. Then in a lot of cases, you don't see them again until the end of the season. But it's a huge opportunity to set a standard early, particularly at home. You got to win at home. You got to hold serve. If you can get an early division win on the road, it's a huge, huge plus mentally."
Plenty of factors will determine the Ravens' success in the stretch. The team was 3-3 against the AFC North last year but is 24-12 within the division under Harbaugh. The Ravens have also won three straight Thursday night games, including last year's 22-20 win at home against the Steelers — the same circumstances they'll play Pittsburgh in this year.
Opponents might struggle to create a game plan against the Ravens early in the season, given the new offense under coordinator Gary Kubiak.
For the Ravens, planning for the divisional opponents began early in the preseason, defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. Game plans for preseason games weren't built to stop those opponents but instead to find his own players' limitations and use them to plan for the divisional opponents accordingly.
Game-planning against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh likely will be the same as it has in years past. The Bengals kept their core largely intact, with rookie running back Jeremy Hill taking veteran back BenJarvus Green-Ellis' place alongside second-year player Giovani Bernard in the backfield, and quarterback Andy Dalton and frequent target A.J. Green back to lead the passing attack.
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In Pittsburgh, the Steelers didn't add much talent on offense or defense, and lost several veteran pieces, but are likely to carry the same philosophy in 2014 as they did in years past.
Cleveland, which underwent another coaching overhaul in the offseason, will be without star wide receiver Josh Gordon, who is suspended for the season for violations of the league's drug policy, but he had just three catches for 44 yards last year against the Ravens.
Ravens left tackle Eugene Monroe said he can feel there's an added emphasis within the locker room, on top of the elevated focus that comes with the preseason ending and the regular season beginning.
"Regardless of who we're playing, we want to get off to a fast start," Monroe said. "We want to be dominant out of the gates and we have an opportunity to do that in conference, which is an awesome opportunity. Now that Week 1 is here, we're focused on Cincinnati and we're ready to get this win."
Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.