As it prepares to begin, the Ravens' 2015 season reminds me of a science experiment – a collision of formidable forces.
It's a good team and a tough schedule butting heads.
I'm not alone with the good-team prediction. Unlike many years when the Ravens have rolled along under the radar, they're getting a lot of love in 2015. Sports Illustrated picked them to win the Super Bowl. The Monday Morning Quarterback's Peter King picked them to get there. Many forecasters see a lot to like.
Others are more dubious, and I do understand their rationale. A year ago, the Ravens finished third in a four-team division and barely crept into the playoffs, needing help on the season's final Sunday to make it. They've since subtracted key players such as Haloti Ngata and Torrey Smith without making correspondingly splashy additions. Their top two draft picks have been included in a worrisome rash of preseason injuries.
Baltimore trimmed its roster down to 53 prior to Saturday's 4 p.m. deadline.
But with all that said, I fully get why the Ravens are a hot pick to do well. They won 10 regular-season games a year ago and followed that up with memorable playoff performances in Pittsburgh and New England, leaving no doubts about their upside potential. Their offensive line, one of the game's best in 2014, returns intact, as do their leading receiver and running back. On defense, though Ngata is gone, they have a ton of young talent up front, led by several Pro Bowl-caliber guys, and their 2014 trouble spot, the secondary, appears improved.
More importantly, their quarterback, Joe Flacco, has a winning track record, a big arm, and at 30, he's in his prime. Few elements correlate more faithfully to success in the NFL than quality continuity under center.
No, the Ravens' preseason wasn't great, but since when does the preseason matter?
The biggest reason that knowing analysts are on the bandwagon is, quite simply, they trust the Ravens. After seeing them make the playoffs six times in the past seven years, they trust GM Ozzie Newsome to put a winning framework in place, and they trust Head Coach John Harbaugh to keep his players grinding through the inevitable ups and downs and eventually land in the right place.
But the Ravens are going to need all of their positive attributes in 2015 as they navigate one of the toughest schedules in their two decades in Baltimore.
Let's list some of what makes the schedule such a challenge, starting with Sunday's opener in Denver against Peyton Manning and company, a reprise of the 2013 opener, which didn't go well. It's part of an early-season obstacle course that features five of the first seven games on the road, including four in the Mountain and Pacific time zones. Then there's a late-season run that includes games against Seattle, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, all 2014 playoff teams. The AFC North, as always, will be tough.
Yes, there are also favorable aspects to the schedule such as a three-game homestand when you need it most, in December. And by finishing third instead of first in their division a year ago, the Ravens get games with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins in 2015 instead of playing the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, whom Pittsburgh has to play by virtue of winning the division.
Still, it's a tough schedule by any measure, maybe a payback of sorts for a relatively forgiving 2014 schedule that included matchups with the weak NFC North and only slightly stronger AFC South.
The Ravens are entering the season with a couple of unanswered questions, such as who is going to return kicks and who is going to stretch opposing defenses other than rookie receiver Breshad Perriman, who is sidelined by a knee injury.
But every contender is entering the season with questions. The Steelers have amazing offensive playmakers, but their defense has fans worried. One Pittsburgh columnist recently wrote that it was a "poor, poor, potentially pathetic defense." Ouch. The Patriots also appear to have gone backward on defense.
Against that backdrop, the Ravens' questions don't appear especially dramatic. It's possible they could experience some rough waters on the road early in the season, but if they can survive, avoid key injuries and keep building, they could be formidable when the weather gets cold.
Bottom line, if they're good enough, as good as many imagine, it simply won't matter that their schedule is a tough.