A variety of thoughts on the Ravens 2014 schedule:
- Long before Wednesday night's unveiling, we knew the Ravens wouldn't have to play top-tier opponents such as the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, so it's no surprise to see the 16-game schedule without them. But whew, seeing it really drives home how much easier the Ravens have it in 2014 after slipping to 8-8 and finishing third in the AFC North last season. Thanks to the NFL's balanced scheduling format, they're playing the Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers instead of the Broncos and Patriots, who beat them by a combined 90-27 last year. They don't play one game against a team that reached the final four of the 2013 Super Bowl tournament. And none of their four December opponents were playoff teams in 2013. There are always plenty of brutal games on an NFL schedule and this one is no different, but relatively speaking, it's a lighter load.
- Talk about a sprint out of the gate. Head Coach John Harbaugh is going to need to have his team in midseason form when the season kicks off. The Ravens open with three straight games against AFC North opponents, starting with two huge ones at home against the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers. Right off the bat, they're going to need to "hold serve" in those games or risk falling into a hole in the division. And with the return games against the Bengals and Steelers also set for relatively early in the season, the Ravens will have completed five-sixths of their divisional schedule by their bye on Nov. 16. It means Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak is really going to be under the gun to get his new system up, running and producing, as the Ravens' chances of reclaiming the top spot in the division could be determined before Thanksgiving.
- Three primetime games for the Ravens is down one from a year ago and their lowest total for a season since 2009, when they also had three. But the falloff was to be expected after they failed to make the playoffs last season. They had more of a gripe in 2009, when they were coming off a surprising season in which they made it to the AFC title game. This time, I say, they got what they deserved. Their low-performing 2013 offense was especially not an advertisement for a spot on the national stage. Yes, potential national-caliber games such as Kubiak's return to Houston and Steve Smith's revenge game against the Panthers were ignored, and some fans might be upset at the perceived slight, but it isn't. Three national games is an acceptable total for a winning organization that is respected in the league and coming off its version of a down year.
- The toughest stretch of the season? No question, it's the run of four road games in five weeks starting on Oct. 5 against the Colts in Indianapolis. That's probably the toughest non-divisional game on the schedule (unless it's the Monday night game in New Orleans), and the Ravens follow it up by going to Tampa Bay, which should be improved under a new head coach, Lovie Smith (good hire, by the way). After a home game against Atlanta on Oct. 19 (the Ravens' only home game between Sept. 28 and Nov. 9), they play the Bengals and Steelers back-to-back on the road. Whew. That's liable to be a defining stretch, especially without a bye breaking it up.
- Quick takes: The mid-November bye is two weeks to a month later than the Ravens are accustomed to. What are the ramifications? The Ravens are going to need to steel themselves for a rugged early season that will seem to last forever. The payoff should come later, when the bye and some easier home games (Jaguars, Browns) set up the possibility of a strong stretch run … How about a hand for the season finale being something other than a road game in Cincinnati? The Ravens had finished with that game for three straight years. It wasn't easy. Finishing with a home game against the Browns could come in handy this year … Playing on the road is never easy, but only three of the Ravens' eight "roadies" in 2014 are against teams that made the playoffs in 2013.