Late For Work 4/22: Toughest Schedule In Harbaugh Era, Game Predictions

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Toughest Schedule In Harbaugh Era, Game Predictions

Buckle up, folks.

The NFL may have just handed the Ravens their toughest schedule of the John Harbaugh era.

One could imagine Ravens brass celebrating and giving each other high fives after locking up shutdown cornerback Jimmy Smith Tuesday afternoon, but the NFL schedule release was like a bucket of cold water.

"I'd imagine there weren't too many smiling faces at the Castle when team officials first glanced at the schedule," wrote The Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec.

"I don't know if somebody in Baltimore must have upset the NFL," added CSNBaltimore.com's Brian Mitchell in the video below. "This is going to be a tough year for Baltimore. I hope this team is ready."

Five of the first seven games on the road? And opening against Peyton Manning when he is fresh instead of worn down in, say, December? Really?

And four of those five road games are on the West Coast? Plus, playing in Pittsburgh on a short week with the return of running back Le'Veon Bell (suspension)? Really, really?

Hopefully the Ravens are enrolled in a good frequent flyer program. The traveling will without a doubt take a physical toll.

Add in the fact that Baltimore will face only four teams that had losing records in 2014, and ESPN's Jamison Hensley declared 2015 "the toughest schedule in coach John Harbaugh's eight seasons."

The first half of the season is so brutal that CBSSports.com's Jason La Canfora and TheMMQB.com's Peter King believes that if the Ravens can simply hover around .500 by the time they reach the bye in Week 9, they will be in good shape to go on a playoff run for the seventh time in eight seasons.

Translation: don't give up on the Ravens by mid-season, even if they don't have a winning record.

Since the road games are front-loaded, M&T Bank Stadium will be a busy place in the second half of the season with six of the final nine games at home. That's helpful, but it still won't be easy.  Three of the Ravens' final four opponents were playoff teams in 2014, and the other, the Chiefs, just barely missed out on the postseason.

"The Ravens will undoubtedly talk up the difficult schedule as an opportunity, rather than using it as an excuse," wrote Zrebiec.

"If [they] get to the playoffs for the seventh time in John Harbaugh's eight seasons at the helm, they'll have earned it. The NFL did them no favors tonight."

Silver Lining: Pittsburgh May Have It Even Tougher

While the Ravens have it rough, their chief rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, may have it even tougher. It will be no walk in the park for the Cincinnati Bengals either.

You may recall this recent Late For Work that explained the Ravens have the "easiest" schedule in the AFC North, based on opponent records from last season. Not only are all the other three division rivals ranked higher in the AFC North, but Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have the toughest strength of schedule in the entire league.

"Did the NFL just kill Pittsburgh's season four months before kickoff?" read a FoxSports.com headline early Wednesday morning.

The Steelers' season opener is against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, and they have to do it without Bell. The* *backend of their schedule may provide the biggest challenge, facing five 2014 playoff teams in consecutive games from Weeks 12 to 16 (Seahawks, Colts, Bengals, Broncos and Ravens).

The Ravens weren't the only team to have their request to play West Coast teams in back-to-back weeks denied. The Bengals' same ask was rejected, too. Cincy will also face five 2014 playoff qualifiers in the last 10 weeks. 

ESPN had their four AFC North reporters predict the final season records* *for each of their respective teams. Based on these projections, the Ravens would finish in second place, tied with the Steelers, which would likely put them right on the edge of the playoffs.

Cincinnati Bengals: 10-6
"With a timely bye, a veteran roster and some favorable late-season matchups, the Bengals can get 10 wins even after going 5-5 heading into Thanksgiving. Despite prime-time road games in Weeks 15 and 16 (the Bengals are 1-12 on the road at night since 2005), they still can go 5-1 to close out the regular season." – Coley Harvey

Baltimore Ravens: 9-7
"This isn't a playoff team right now, but the Ravens do their best work at this time of the offseason." – Jamison Hensley 

Pittsburgh Steelers: 9-7
"All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell will miss up to the first three games of the season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy and All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown is unhappy with his contract with three years still left on it. What should concern the Steelers more is they have enough questions at outside linebacker and in their secondary to fill a show of 'Jeopardy,' not to mention a demanding schedule in which they open at New England and play five of their last six games against teams that made the playoffs in 2014." – Scott Brown 

Cleveland Browns: 4-12
"The Browns might answer their quarterback question by opening day, but as of today it's a black hole that needs filling. That, the lack of a potent offense in an era of offense and a difficult schedule means the Browns take steps back this season." – Pat McManamon

Game-By-Game Ravens Predictions

If you're curious to see how Hensley got to his 9-7 record prediction for the Ravens, he gave a detailed breakdown of each matchup. Here's a quick summary:

Week 1: Broncos 27, Ravens 17. "This isn't the time to play Manning."
Week 2: Ravens 20, Raiders 16. "[Oakland is] a friendly place for visitors." 
Week 3: Ravens 30, Bengals 23. "The Ravens have sacked Dalton 11 times at home."
Week 4: Steelers 23, Ravens 16. "The Ravens have never won a Thursday night game on the road."
Week 5: Ravens 28, Browns 10. "The Browns' luck never [changes] in Baltimore."
Week 6: Ravens 26, 49ers 20. "Baltimore's first game against …  Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith."
Week 7: Cardinals 21, Ravens 10. "No quarterback has beaten Baltimore more than [Carson] Palmer."
Week 8: Chargers 31, Ravens 28. "The Ravens are hoping the Chargers trade Philip Rivers."
Week 9: Bye
Week 10: Ravens 38, Jaguars 16. "The Ravens have won six in a row over Jacksonville in Baltimore."
Week 11: Ravens 16, Rams 6. "New QB Nick Foles won't look like the Nick Foles from Philadelphia."
Week 12: Ravens 24, Browns 13. "The Ravens continue their late November roll."
Week 13: Dolphins 22, Ravens 17. "The problem … is the Ravens are going on the road after a Monday night game against a division team."
Week 14: Seahawks 16, Ravens 13. "The Seahawks are one of the few teams who won't be intimidated."
Week 15: Ravens 24, Chiefs 20. "The Ravens have done a remarkably good job at quieting [Jamaal Charles]."
Week 16: Ravens 19, Steelers 17. "The Baltimore defense often uses Big Ben as a piñata."
Week 17: Bengals 23, Ravens 13. "The Ravens have lost more games at Paul Brown Stadium than anywhere else in the seven-year Harbaugh era."

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