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Eisenberg: Sunday's Battle in Cincinnati Is a Bigger-Than-Usual Game


I can't remember who made the smart observation that every game in the NFL is a "statement game" for both teams, but it's true.

In a season of just 16 games (as opposed to, say, 162 in baseball), a team makes some sort of palpable statement about itself, for better or worse, every time it takes the field.

That's especially true in the season opener, I think.

Since the end of the prior season, every team has spent months under construction, juggling changes they want to make with those dictated by the salary cap. They're all optimistic the pieces will fit together nicely. The opener provides the first indication of whether they're on the right track, and for half, the news isn't good.

In the Ravens' case, openers have tended to make a loud and clear statement about how their upcoming season will unfold.

They're 8-2 in the first games of seasons that ended with them making the playoffs. But they're 2-9 in the openers of seasons in which they failed to qualify for the postseason.

Wow. With those numbers in mind, you can't quite say the first game tells you everything you need to know, but it tends to say a lot.

Even before I dug up those numbers this week, I thought Sunday's 2017 opener in Cincinnati was a bigger-than-usual game for the franchise. The Ravens are coming off an 8-8 season and have missed the playoffs three times since 2013. Many prognosticators have targeted them as a middle-of-the-pack outfit. But the organization feels its team is better than that. Sunday's game against the Bengals will provide a gauge.

The circumstances are daunting, no doubt. Road game. Playoff-caliber opponent. Division rival. It's probably one of the five toughest openers in Ravens history. They haven't won in Cincinnati since 2011.

But they're going to make a statement Sunday, one way or another.

What kind of statement? As always, there are two primary options.

If they win, the pro football world will go "whoa." The Bengals are missing several suspended players, but they're talented and excited to be opening at home for a change. If the Ravens spoil Cincinnati's party, especially with their defense carrying them, they'll know they've concocted a winning formula despite their strange offseason of retirements, injuries and uncertainty.

You watch, they'll shoot up the power rankings.

The other statement they could make Sunday isn't nearly as pleasant.

During their recent run of non-playoff seasons, the Ravens have struggled away from M&T Bank Stadium, where they're 10-22 since winning Super Bowl 47. They've also struggled against upper-echelon opposition.

If they lose Sunday, it will send the statement, fairly or not, that those issues are ongoing and perhaps nothing has changed. Definitely not what the Ravens want to say to fans who seemingly are excited about 2017, but cautiously so.

If all this promotes the perception that Sunday's stakes are higher than usual, well, I think that's accurate. But please understand, I'm not suggesting the game is a must-win make-or-breaker for the Ravens. Come on. We just celebrated Labor Day. Regardless of what the Ravens' season-opening history suggests, there's plenty of time to make amends if you lose in Week 1.

In 2003, the Ravens were hammered in their opener in Pittsburgh but ended up winning the AFC North. Last year, the Atlanta Falcons lost their season opener at home to Tampa Bay, hardly a promising start, but they won the next week, kept winning and ended up in the Super Bowl.

If the Ravens lose Sunday but come back and win their home opener against Cleveland in Week 2, they'll still have everything to play for.

But of course, as they fly to Cincinnati today in advance of Sunday's kickoff, the Ravens aren't the least bit interested in any Plan B scenarios. The organization's goal is to get beyond its disappointing recent past. Here's a splendid opportunity to do that, to make the statement that, indeed, 2017 is going to be different.

Sorry for getting philosophical, but situations like this are what compel us to watch, right? Big stuff on the line.

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