Ravens just fine with being underdogs, thank you

If you just woke up from an eight-month nap and tuned into SportsCenter or any of the NFL shows on cable, you'll be surprised to learn that the Ravens will open the 2013 season on Thursday night without Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and a whole bunch of other key players from the reigning Super Bowl championship team.

The rest of us made peace with that a long time ago, but the national media never met an obvious storyline it didn't like, so much of the buildup heading into the rematch of last year's crazy, double-overtime playoff game between the Ravens and Broncos has been focused on the defensive stars Peyton Manning won't be facing instead of the ones he will.

The only thing missing has been ESPN's newest retired NFL superstar — Lewis — giving an in-depth analysis of what he meant to the Ravens and what his absence will mean this season. But Lewis isn't scheduled to make his official debut with the Worldwide Leader until Sunday.

The Ravens are, indeed, quite a different team than the one that paraded the Lombardi Trophy down Pratt Street in February. They lost important players on both sides of the ball and don't have nearly the star power they had last year, so it's just too easy to question their experience and their on-field leadership and make the case that they are a perfect candidate for the next-year jinx that is popularly know as the "Super Bowl hangover."

None of this seems to bother the Ravens, who enjoyed being taken lightly all the way to New Orleans last winter and find themselves again being heavily discounted by the oddsmakers heading into a big game in Denver.

(Seven and a half-point underdogs? Really? If it wasn't for our company ethics policy, I'd be down at the BofA right now blowing up my line of credit to get all of that action I could find.)

Of course, this is all the stuff that happens outside the circle of trust. If the rest of the football world wants to give the Ravens a pass on the responsibility that comes with defending a Super Bowl title and annoint the Broncos again … or, for that matter, hand the AFC North title to the Cincinnati Bengals …well, the Ravens are just happy to cash in the first "no respect" card of the young season.

"I really appreciate that," said Coach John Harbaugh. "I send them 'thank you' notes at every opportunity. The more that they say those kind of things, the better I feel about our chances."

That has become a familiar theme around the Under Armour Performance Center over the past few years. The Ravens shocked the world, and then Ozzie Newsome went about the business of retooling the team so that it wouldn't fall into salary cap hell. The Ravens might be a better team — top to bottom — than the one that prevailed on the night that the lights went out in the Big Easy.

If the Ravens had lost Lewis, Reed and Anquan Boldin to free agency or via trade six years ago when they were at the peak of their skills, that would certainly be cause for dismissing the Super Bowl champs as a legitimate candidate to repeat. But the three of them were a combined 104 years old when they headed out of town and Boldin was the only one who wasn't clearly in decline.

This year's team is younger, quicker and hungrier because Newsome and Harbaugh made the hard choices that have the NFL pundits scratching their heads. There will be some growing pains with some young players forced to take on more responsibility in the absence of those veterans, but the Ravens are still very much a playoff-caliber team.

The Broncos are getting way more respect — at least at the outset — because they are led by one of the greatest quarterbacks in history and because the Ravens' playoff victory over them last year was largely the result of that crazy last-ditch touchdown reception by Jacoby Jones. But don't forget that Manning is 37 and the Broncos enter the season without Von Miller, who is serving a suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and Elvis Dumervil, who will be chasing Manning around Sports Authority Field on Thursday night in a Ravens uniform.

It's early September and there isn't a team in the NFL that doesn't have some issue to overcome if it is to navigate the 16-game regular season well enough to reach the playoffs. The Ravens are no exception of course, so they they don't seem particularly bothered by the skepticism that has followed them into the new season.

"That's what the media is supposed to do," wide receiver Torrey Smith said with a smile. "They're supposed to talk about stuff that we don't really care about. That's just how it works. It's the first game of the year. That's what people want to know. That's what the fans want to see, like, 'They're not there so, what's next?' That's the big question mark until we go out there and play a real game …

"Well, for everyone else, not really us."

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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