"A couple days into it, even though we technically should be more tired, more fatigued, just because we’ve been practicing, I think we’ll start to feel better," Joe Flacco said about training camp. (Kevin Richardson)
Standing behind the line of scrimmage Thursday morning during the first practice of training camp, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco scanned the field before launching a deep spiral that connected with wide receiver Steve Smith over the middle.
It was the kind of strike Flacco routinely delivers in the playoffs, where he has a 10-5 record, was named Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XLVII and has passed for 3,223 yards, 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
As good as Flacco and the Ravens have been in the playoffs and in qualifying for the postseason with six playoff berths in coach John Harbaugh's seven seasons, division titles have eluded them in recent years.
Their last AFC North title came in 2012, their Super Bowl-winning season. And they've finished third in the AFC North in each of the past two years, but advanced to the AFC divisional round last season, losing 35-31 to the eventual Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots after squandering a two-touchdown lead.
As the Ravens start their camp, they do so with a desire to build a smoother path through the playoffs by winning a division title to earn at least one home playoff game. Their bigger goal is earning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with the top record in the AFC.
"Yes, we want home playoff games," Harbaugh said. "We definitely [want] multiple home playoff games. That's what we're looking for, and it doesn't matter what division we're playing against, outside the division or whatever. If we win more games than anybody else, we'll get them all at home. That's the goal."
The Ravens have won the AFC North twice under Harbaugh, going 12-4 in 2011 and making it to the AFC championship game and going 10-6 in 2012.
During his annual state-of-the-team news conference in February, owner Steve Bisciotti emphasized how much he wants the Ravens to earn the right to host playoff games at M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens are 3-2 all-time in home playoff games.
"I would say that the only blemish on our resume right now, as a group sitting up here, is that we haven't won our division as much," Bisciotti said. "We probably haven't performed [well enough in the division]. There's a reason why Joe Flacco has more away game wins in the playoffs than any other quarterback in history, because we keep sending his butt out there on the road.
"Until we actually win more in our division and start claiming some home games, we're doing something that hasn't really been done, historically, in the NFL, and that's win on the road and win all six of those years — actually win a playoff game, most of them on the road. So, when we're critical of each other, we don't have to go far to look at our failure, and I think it's [division titles], probably. We have to beat Pittsburgh and Cincinnati more consistently, and we have to start claiming that AFC North title before we start looking forward to accomplishing greater things. That's a little bit of a smudge on our resume, and we're well aware of it."
That ambition could start with Flacco continuing to upgrade his efficiency in the regular season. He's coming off his best statistical season last year, when he passed for 3,986 yards, 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
"Yes, [winning the division is] always big, and it's not necessarily because we want home playoff games," Flacco said. "It's because we want to win a division, and that's just the result of it. I think that's our first goal every year is to win games within our division and do what we can to win our division.
"I think that's always our main goal is to win the division. Obviously, we would love to get some home playoff games in front of these guys, in front of our fans here. But at the same time, a playoff game is a playoff game, and we'd love to go out there and play the way we should and be good enough to get another chance to be there."
"January Joe" has been exemplary in the playoffs and traditionally solid in the regular season, going 72-40 overall. He's the Ravens' all-time leading passer with 25,531 yards, 148 touchdowns and 90 interceptions.
Flacco threw 11 touchdown passes with zero interceptions during the Ravens' Super Bowl run to tie Joe Montana's single-season playoff record, outdueling San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the Super Bowl with three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
"I think we come out here and push it every day," Flacco said. "We push the envelope, and we really challenge ourselves to get better at this time of the year. And, everything that we have in mind that we do towards the [season] — in the season, before the season, everything that we do — is looking ahead to the fact that when we get into January [and] February, how can we do things that help us play the best at that time?"
The Ravens have work to do during this camp and then a demanding road schedule to contend with, including their season opener against the Denver Broncos, before they can make another playoff run.
They'll use this camp to build timing and chemistry, including breaking in new starters at wide receiver, tight end and strong safety, and absorbing the nuances of new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman's playbook. Plus, the Ravens need key veterans like outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has shed pounds but remains overweight, and cornerback Lardarius Webb, who failed his conditioning test and was placed on the non-football injury list, to get into optimal condition.
The Ravens face stiff competition in the AFC North, with the Pittsburgh Steelers headlined by one of the top offenses in the game led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown, and a deep Cincinnati Bengals team that's finished first or second in the division each of the past three seasons under former Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis.
"I think we're capable of anything," outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil said when asked how he rates the Ravens' season outlook. "I just think we've got to continue to work in camp. We have a talented roster, great coaching staff, great fan base, so we're excited for this year, for sure."