Five thoughts on the Ravens' 2016 regular-season schedule:
A Return To Normalcy
I'll always remember my initial reaction to seeing the Ravens' 2015 schedule when it landed in my inbox a year ago: "wow." I literally said that out loud after I realized the Ravens would play five of their first seven games on the road, including four in either the Western or Mountain time zones. It was a brutal schedule; no NFL team since the Ravens in 2000 had started with five of seven on the road. Perhaps not surprisingly, it brought the Ravens to their knees this time. I don't know that I was expecting to see some sort of payback this year because the NFL doesn't operate that way, but especially given who and where the Ravens were playing, I was expecting to see them receive a normal, ordinary schedule, at least one that didn't make my eyes bug out. And indeed, that's exactly what they got. Oh, it's a schedule with some pros and cons, which I'll get into below, but big picture, it constitutes a return to normalcy for the Ravens.
Major Break For Returning Injured Players
As if to make up for 2015, the Ravens' 2016 schedule starts with what can only be described as a relatively "soft" stretch. They don't play a single 2015 playoff qualifier in September. In fact, they only play one (Washington) before their bye in late October. That's a break for a team with so many players coming back from major injuries, giving those players a better chance to feel their way back into shape. The payback comes later, as the toughest part of the schedule is the final stretch. Three of the Ravens' final four games are on the road, all against topnotch competition, the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. It means the Ravens will need to be in decent shape in the playoff race, with some leeway, before December hits. (That's provided they're in the playoff race, no longer a certainty after 2015.) And December games in all of those locations are typically played in cold weather, underscoring how important it is for the Ravens to re-start their running game in 2016 after watching it falter last season.
No Surprise Ravens Get Fewer Primetime Games After 5-11 Finish
The Ravens have won consistently enough over the years that they're accustomed to playing a heavy slate of primetime games. They had four under the lights in 2010, five in 2011 and four in 2012, a healthy docket that fans saw as a show of respect from the league. But the primetime schedule is definitely a referendum on what teams have done lately, and it's no surprise that the Ravens have just two primetime games in 2016, a Thursday nighter at home against Cleveland and the above-mentioned Monday nighter at New England. Go ahead and complain about a lack of respect if you want, but honestly, this is just what happens when a team wins five games in a season to miss the playoffs for the second time in three years. Two games under the lights is the Ravens' fewest in a season since 2006, but mark my words, if they post a winning record and make the playoffs in 2016, that total will rise.
Biggest Shocker: No Ravens-Steelers Under The Lights
Having said that about night games, the most shocking aspect of this schedule is that neither game between the Ravens and Steelers will be played under the lights. That hasn't happened since 2006, and yes, as I wrote in a column in December (that plenty of people disagreed with), it's a signal that the Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry has lost a bit of luster since its halcyon days when Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu were running around. Oh, it's still a bitter feud, and regardless of what others think, it's one of pro football's most entertaining, unpredictable rivalries, as evidenced by the Ravens' shocking sweep in 2015. But let's face it, after that car crash of a playoff game between the Steelers and Bengals in January, their games are what fans elsewhere want to see.
The Ravens won't get down to business in the AFC North until after their midseason bye. They don't play either the Bengals or Steelers until November. Four of their last nine games are against their top two division rivals … The Christmas Day road game (in Pittsburgh) is a franchise first. The Ravens have played on Christmas once before, beating the Minnesota Vikings at M&T Bank Stadium in 2005 … Baltimore will churn through six sets of back-to-back home and road games, but fear not conspiracy theorists, there are three of each … Coming off a season in which they went 3-5 at home, where they usually dominate, the Ravens have a chance to fare better. Only three of their eight home opponents made the playoffs last year: the Steelers, Bengals and (drum roll) Washington Redskins … For sheer scheduling weirdness, it's hard to top back-to-back games against the New York Giants and New York Jets at New Jersey's MetLife Stadium in October. Unlike last year, when they spent a week in California between road games, I don't think the Ravens will spend the week in the Garden State … After last year's Grateful Dead (long, strange trip) schedule, the Ravens will leave the Eastern time zone for all of 24 hours in 2016, when they travel to Dallas to play the Cowboys in November.