Eisenberg: There Is No Bye Through the Regular Season

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HC John Harbaugh talks to the team

Most football analysts seem to believe the Ravens have nothing to prove until January, when the playoffs begin.

It's widely assumed they'll reach the postseason, where they've gone 0-2 in the past two years after winning division titles, prompting the popular analysis that January (and possibly February) is when we can start tabulating what matters to them.

Hmm.

As the start of the 2020 regular season nears, I'd be careful with thinking that over the next few months the Ravens mainly just need to worry about getting ready for the playoffs.

They have to get there first.

Please note, they don't get a bye through the regular season.

Yes, it certainly appears they're ready to soar. After going 14-2 last year, they've tweaked their deep, talented roster with impressive additions such as defensive lineman Calais Campbell and rookies Patrick Queen and J.K. Dobbins.

Not even the subtraction of Pro Bowl veterans Marshal Yanda (retired) and Earl Thomas III (cut) has discouraged analysts from ranking the Ravens among the leading Super Bowl contenders.

But the NFL's 16-game season is a long and winding road. Significant challenges await, beginning with Sunday's season opener against the Cleveland Browns.

For starters, the Ravens have gone from being the hunters to the hunted. It's a little dizzying for a team and fan base used to playing the "no respect" card. But those days are over.

"We're going to be everybody's most important game," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said in June.

They're also coming off a regular season so dreamlike they won the AFC North by a whopping six games. I'd wager a nickel that doesn't happen again, as the division should be more challenging. The Pittsburgh Steelers have a solid defense and Ben Roethlisberger back. The Cincinnati Bengals' quarterback was the top pick in the 2020 draft. The Browns have a talented roster and a new coach seemingly better able to harness it. They'll try to cram the ball down the Ravens' throats Sunday.

The Ravens also are playing a first-place schedule that, yes, includes some easier weeks but also games against the Kansas City Chiefs, Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots – the AFC's other top contenders.

Other challenges surely will present themselves. That's always the case during a season staged in ordinary times, and in a season that's anything but ordinary due to the coronavirus pandemic, it's probably best just to expect the unexpected, not all of which may be welcomed.

To be clear, I'm not wringing my hands and screeching a warning that the Ravens are receiving too much hype. My regular season prediction for them is easy double-digit wins and a third straight division title.

Their defense should be stouter than last year's, and their record-setting offense doesn't figure to slip even with opposing defensive coordinators having spent the offseason trying to figure out ways to slow down Lamar Jackson, the reigning league MVP. My guess is those projects won't go too well. Jackson is just too dynamic and determined not to make the difference in many games, and he is surrounded by weapons.

Sure, there are questions to answer, issues to monitor. Will the interior of the offensive line hold up? Are the young wide receivers truly ready to step up? Can the pass rush generate enough heat? Is the run defense improved?

Then there's the big-picture question: Can the Ravens replicate last year's 14-2 record, the best in franchise history?

My response: Sure, it's possible. But that's a high bar and I wouldn't obsess over it.

The Chiefs took a slight step back during the regular season a year ago, but eventually won the Super Bowl. It's an instructive example. The Chiefs didn't compile quite as many wins or gaudy statistics as the year before, but they also didn't just dismiss the regular season as a bye, because you can't. The Chiefs faced many challenges that made them better in the end.

Sounds like a good path to follow, doesn't it?

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