Five thoughts on the Ravens' 2018 regular season schedule:
Splitting Road Games Won't Be Easy
For the second time in three years, the Ravens open with a home game against the Buffalo Bills – a matchup in which they'll probably be favored even though Buffalo was a playoff team in 2017. That bodes well for a positive start, but the Ravens will need to have their "A" game going early because after the opener, they'll play four of their next five games on the road. The trips are to Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Tennessee, and with the Browns trending positively, none figure to be easy. Baltimore will also travel to Carolina, Atlanta and Kansas City later in the season, facing a 2017 playoff qualifier at each stop. Given the caliber of that opposition, the Ravens might have to be satisfied with a reprise of last season's .500 road record.
Thank You, NFL, for Switching up Tired AFC North Traditions
Let me be the first to applaud the schedule-makers for shaking up the status quo for the Ravens' AFC North contests. Don't faint, but for just the second time in nine years, Baltimore DOES NOT end the season with a game against the Cincinnati Bengals. That tradition had grown tired, to say the least, and not just because last season's game ended so miserably. (Sorry to bring it up.) Another common sight on recent schedules was a key December contest against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, usually in prime time, but that also isn't happening in 2018. Strangely, the Ravens' home-and-home series with the Steelers will be finished by early November, before the Ravens' bye-week break. They play in Pittsburgh on Sept. 30 (yes, in prime time) and host the Steelers on Nov. 4 – more reason to have that "A" game ready early, along with the fact that the Ravens will have completed their divisional *road *schedule by Week 5, by far the earliest point in franchise history. (Until now, the earliest they've ever completed their divisional road schedule is Week 9.)
Lack of Prime-Time Games Reflects Ravens' Winning Dip **
Speaking of prime-time games, the Ravens couldn't have expected too many after missing the playoffs for three straight years and four of the last five. But they really got the cold shoulder from the networks, landing just two night games – their lightest load since 2006. They've played three, four or five games at night every season since then, but this year they've got one on a Sunday night, one on a Thursday night, and for the first time since 2003, they won't appear on Monday Night Football at all. It's an obvious reflection on the dip in the Ravens' fortunes, with the fact they aren't hosting one an add-on indignity, I suppose. (If you like "Sunday at 1" home games, this schedule is for you. There are seven.) As for whether it's all worth getting worked up about, to borrow a phrase from Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti, I'd say the Ravens "have bigger fish to fry."
If They Endure Early Road Games, Ravens Can Build Momentum for December
As noted above, the early-season schedule is dominated by road games, and the late-season schedule is similar in nature: the Ravens will close out 2018 with three of their last five games away from M&T Bank Stadium. But there's always a trade-off, and for the Ravens in 2018, that trade-off is a home stretch so lengthy it lasts over a month. After facing the Panthers in Carolina on Oct. 28, the Ravens won't go on the road again until they travel to Atlanta to face the Falcons on December 2. In between, they'll enjoy a baseball-like three-game homestand plus their bye, which, by my calendar, adds up to 34 days without a road trip. Translation: If they can endure that early-season gauntlet, they'll have a chance to build momentum heading into December.
There Are Some Tough Stretches, But Things Can and Will Change
Toughest stretch? I'd go with the Saints-Panthers-Steelers run heading into the bye. But remember, a schedule can look a lot different in the fall. A year ago, a midseason road game against the Packers looked like a loss, but after an injury to Aaron Rodgers, the Ravens had better odds and wound up shutting out the Packers. Right now, overall, their 2018 schedule appears to be somewhat tougher than usual, with five road games and eight overall against 2017 playoff qualifiers – a bona fide challenge for a team trying to make it back to the playoffs. But with these games still months away, the landscape is bound to change. And either way, what will matter most in the end, what will define the 2018 Ravens, is how they play, not who they play.