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Eisenberg: Ravens Will Be A Playoff Team


OK, so I sat down and did the math. I understood the situation generally, but for clarity's sake, I needed to see some numbers. Here they are:

A year ago, the Ravens had 14 newcomers on their 53-man roster entering the season. This year, there are 19 newcomers – five more than a year ago.

Last year, there were three new starters as the front office pretty much stuck with the lineup that came within a dropped pass of the Super Bowl. This year, there are eight or nine new starters, three times as many.

In recent years, most Super Bowl winners have stood pat for the most part and tried to repeat with the same players. You can understand the thinking. Why tinker with what worked?

But the Ravens are taking a dramatically different approach, having undertaken a significant overhaul heading into their regular-season opener Thursday night in Denver.

You know this, of course. It's been the story of the offseason. But did you know 36 percent of the roster and 41 percent of the starting lineup are new faces?

I feel safe in saying no Super Bowl winner has ever put the chisel so deep into its clay.

The Ravens had no control over some of the changes, the retirements of Ray Lewis and Matt Birk, the injury to Dennis Pitta. But most of the moves were willful, their call. The amount of change shocked fans, surprised the rest of the league, and it's certainly making things interesting as the 2013 season kicks off. The football world is fascinated to see how the Ravens' bold gamble plays out.

There are skeptics, for sure. The Cincinnati Bengals are getting a lot of love in the AFC North. I've seen one Las Vegas sports book giving over/under odds on whether the Ravens win more than 8½ games, a paltry total.

But I've also seen some experts picking them to have a winning season and make the playoffs, and for the record, that's what I envision.

I'm not going through the schedule game-by-game, but I see another year of double-digit wins (the fifth in six years under Head Coach John Harbaugh) and another trip to the playoffs (six straight under Harbaugh).

My hat's off to the front office for doing what it did. I'm not sure about all the moves, but basically, the Ravens decided they weren't going to win another Super Bowl with the same defense, and to quote Jim Harbaugh, I concur. The defense had some fine moments in 2012 but it mostly just hung on for dear life.

That's where most of the change has occurred, and after all the coming and going, I think the Ravens are, in fact, quite a bit better on that side of the ball. The run defense should be stout with Haloti Ngata in the middle, surrounded by impressive talent and depth. The pass rush could be the league's best with Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil leading the way. Lardarius Webb's return is a game-changer on the back end. There's a lot to like.

Offensively, there are fewer changes but more questions. Can Gino Gradkowski successfully replace Birk? Can Ed Dickson make up a lot of what was lost when Pitta went down? Joe Flacco is in his prime, a major asset, able to carry an offense, but does he have enough viable targets? A lot is riding on how much an unexpected combination of veterans (Brandon Stokley, Dallas Clark) and rookies (Marlon Brown, Aaron Mellette) chip in.

Looming over it all is the threat of the "Super Bowl hangover," the famous year-after letdown that grabs some teams, but I don't see that being a factor. Defensive lineman Chris Canty, who went through it with the New York Giants last year, practically laughed at the idea.

"You can't be complacent, and with the environment Coach Harbaugh has created, that's definitely not going to happen," Canty said.

What is it about Harbaugh's environment?

"It's just competitive. We compete at everything, in practice, you name it," Canty said with a smile. "The (New York) team I was on, complacency set in and we weren't able to be successful. I haven't seen anything like that around here." That edginess, an array of playmakers, Flacco, the refitted defense … it's enough to keep the Ravens in the upper echelon of the AFC and get them back to the playoffs. And once they're there, as they learned a year ago, who knows what can happen?

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