Late for Work 5/13: Ravens Have the NFL's Quirkiest Schedule

051321-LFW
Ravens Defense

Ravens Have the NFL's Quirkiest Schedule

Prior to yesterday's release of the 2021 NFL schedule, we knew the Ravens have one of the toughest slates. Now we know they have the quirkiest.

"Last year's schedule produced some oddities that are usually avoided, like the five teams that played three straight road games and the 10 teams that had three straight home contests," NFL.com's Judy Battista wrote. "This season, the quirkiest schedule belongs to the Baltimore Ravens, who play four games in a row at home beginning in Week 5 and have a bye week in between. After an Oct. 3 tilt in Denver, the Ravens will sleep in their own beds until they leave for a Nov. 11 game in Miami."

The flip side to the Ravens' extended stay in Baltimore is that they play four of their next five games on the road. They also face five teams that made the playoffs last season in their final six games.

Sports Illustrated's Conor Orr named the Ravens as one of six teams that were "stiffed by the NFL schedule."

"After a plum schedule in 2020 with extremely limited travel, the Ravens get put through the gauntlet in 2021," Orr wrote. "It's hard to overstate how much steeper the climb becomes post-bye.

"After winnable back-to-back road games against the Dolphins on Thursday Night Football (Nov. 28) and the Bears (a solid placement for their Thursday night game considering they get the mini bye close after their actual bye), Baltimore hosts the Browns, travels to Pittsburgh, travels to Cleveland and hosts the Packers. Then, after a game against the Bengals in Cincinnati, they close out their regular season with back-to-back home games against the Rams and Steelers, both of whom will likely factor into the playoff conversation."

Another quirk to the Ravens' schedule is that they don't face their first AFC North opponent until Week 7 (at home against the Cincinnati Bengals) and have just one division game among the first 10. Five of their six division games will take place over the last seven weeks of the regular season.

Moreover, the Ravens and Browns — the teams widely considered to be the two best in the AFC North — will play each other in Weeks 12 and 14. In Week 13, however, Cleveland has a bye, while the Ravens travel to Pittsburgh. Thus, the Browns will play the Ravens in back-to-back games.

In addition to the Ravens' second game against the Browns, they also will be playing with a lack of rest against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2.

"Baltimore plays host to Kansas City after opening the season at Las Vegas [on "Monday Night Football]," ESPN's Jamison Hensley wrote. "This means playing Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs on a short week after taking a cross-country, red-eye flight."

Here's a sample of what else pundits are saying about the Ravens' schedule:

How many games will the Ravens' win?

Baltimore Beatdown's Joshua Reed: "14-3. I expect the Ravens to emerge from their second-half gauntlet in great shape to secure a high playoff seed."

The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec: "11-6. This is an extremely tough schedule, and the AFC North should be better than it was last year. However, the Ravens have improved offensive personnel and their defense has been reliable. A key will be getting to the bye week at no worse than 5-2 because the team's last 10 games will be a major test. Predicted division finish: 1. Browns; 2. Ravens; 3. Steelers; 4. Bengals. As long as Joe Burrow is healthy, the Bengals should be better and the other three teams are all capable of winning the AFC North. The Browns look like the most complete team on paper, but if the Ravens make the anticipated improvements in the passing game, they'll be right there."

CBS Sports' Bryan DeArdo: "11-6. Baltimore plays just two returning playoff teams before heading into its Week 8 bye. The Ravens' schedule gets significantly tougher after the bye, however, with eight games against teams that either posted a winning record or made the playoffs in 2020. A fast start is going to be crucial to the Ravens' division hopes in 2021."

NFL Network's analytics expert Cynthia Frelund: "10.8 wins. Excluding divisional games, which kind of follow a different cadence from regular-season contests, the Ravens have pretty optimal spacing between the two most difficult dates on their schedule, with the Chiefs coming in Week 2 (Sept. 19) and Packers coming in Week 15 (Dec. 19). The stretch of Weeks 12-14, which includes the Browns twice and one trip to Pittsburgh, could go a long way toward determining which AFC North team wins the division and which ends up as a wild-card squad; this division is the most likely in all of football to send at least two teams to the playoffs."

A bold prediction for the Ravens.

Hensley: "The Ravens will sweep their December division road trips to Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati. How bold is this? The Ravens have gone undefeated on the road in the AFC North only twice (2011 and 2019). But Lamar Jackson has shown that he plays his best at the end of the regular season. He has won his past 11 starts in December, producing a league-high Total QBR (78.5) and scoring the most total touchdowns (31)."

Do the Ravens really have the second-toughest schedule?

They do — if you're going by their opponents' 2020 records. According to Sharp Football Analysis, a better indicator of strength of schedule is projected 2021 win totals. By that metric, the Ravens have the 10th-toughest schedule. The Browns, by the way, have the third-easiest.

Sharp Football Analysis: "While there aren't perfect strength of schedule metrics, using 2021 Vegas win totals is much better than so many widely used metrics that use the previous season's record. The Vegas win totals give us a better indication of what teams could look like in 2021 than their 2020 wins would."

The Week 2 "Sunday Night Football" game against the Chiefs at M&T Bank Stadium is the top marquee matchup for the Ravens.

Orr: "There's not much else to say about this game other than it's going to be good. Until the Ravens reach the Super Bowl with Lamar Jackson, it may not have the same kind of marquee panache as a Brady-Manning matchup from the mid-2000s and on. But whenever two of football's most important players are on the field it should be considered appointment television. One might call it the Orlando Brown revenge game, but I'm more interested in whether the upgrades Steve Spagnuolo got on the defensive side of the ball will be enough to continue the Chiefs' strong track record against Jackson."

NFL.com's Adam Schein: "Patrick Mahomes vs. Lamar Jackson is electrifying for the football soul. You won't find two more exciting players in the NFL today — not to mention, it's a matchup between two of the past three league MVPs. And these teams are tied together in some intriguing ways. The Ravens now employ former Chief Sammy Watkins. Also, Kansas City and Baltimore got together for a pre-draft trade that benefited both teams, with the Chiefs landing Orlando Brown to protect Mahomes and the Ravens gaining a pick package that ultimately netted explosive first-round edge rusher Odafe Oweh. Brown and Oweh figure to go up against each other at times in this very game."

NFL.com's Nick Shook: "Though last season's matchup failed to produce the memorable finish to which we'd grown accustomed in recent years from these two squads, another meeting is impossible to overlook. The Ravens return with a playoff win under their belts and the same ambition they've had for each of the last two seasons: Dethrone the Chiefs. Busy offseasons for both have them locked and loaded for what promises to be another classic that could go a long way toward sorting out the AFC."

Which game has gotten tougher?

Zrebiec: "The Ravens have typically had their way with the Dolphins, but Miami is an ascending team under Brian Flores. The Dolphins will be a challenge, and then you factor in playing on the road on a Thursday night following a short week, like the Ravens will be doing Nov. 11. That's not been a good recipe for visitors."

Shook: "The Ravens might have looked at this matchup in previous years and considered it to be somewhat of a break from the usual rough-and-tumble AFC North, but the Dolphins' turnaround in 2020 taught us we can no longer take them lightly. Brian Flores' scrappy bunch proved it can hang with the best, and should give the Ravens a quality test in a meeting of teams led by mobile and highly talented quarterbacks."

Which game figures to be the easiest?

The Baltimore Sun's Daniel Oyefusi: "Week 3 at Detroit Lions. Though the Lions sent [Matthew] Stafford to Los Angeles and acquired [Jared] Goff, along with a treasure trove of draft picks, this is a franchise in rebuilding mode with a first-time head coach and general manager. It might be the lightest matchup of a hard slate, but make no mistake: kneecaps will be on alert."

There are two revenge games for Ravens players.

Zrebiec: "Right tackle Alejandro Villanueva didn't hide from the fact the opportunity to face the Steelers twice a year was one of the bonuses of signing with the Ravens. It won't be an easy day at the office for Villanueva. He'll likely spend much of the game matched up against T.J. Watt, one of the league's top pass rushers. Cornerback Marcus Peters faced the Rams a little over a month after they traded him to the Ravens in October. He picked off Jared Goff and then got into an altercation with Ramsey, the cornerback Los Angeles brought in to essentially replace Peters. In a recent interview with former teammate Aqib Talib, Peters said he felt disrespected by the Rams and punctuated that sentiment by saying, '(Expletive) them.' With Peters and Ramsey in the same place, there are sure to be fireworks."

Ravens Will See Familiar Faces in Week 1

The Ravens have opened as 5-point favorites on road against the Raiders in Week 1, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

They'll see plenty of familiar faces wearing silver and black. Former Ravens Willie Snead IV, Yannick Ngakoue and John Brown signed with Las Vegas in the offseason. Baltimore will have to neutralize another former Raven — Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller — to win, Zrebiec wrote.

"Waller, a sixth-round pick drafted by Baltimore in 2015 as a wide receiver, has become one of the top tight ends in the NFL," Zrebiec wrote. "Since being signed off the Ravens practice squad in 2018, Waller has caught 203 balls for 2,416 yards and 12 touchdowns in 36 games for the Raiders. The Ravens always knew Waller had the talent, but he battled addiction issues during his time in Baltimore and was suspended twice. Now, the Ravens will have to devise a game plan to slow down Derek Carr's favorite target."

The last time the Ravens opened the season on "Monday Night Football" was 2012, when they routed the Bengals, 44-13. Baltimore went on to win the Super Bowl that season.

Ebony Bird's Justin Fried thinks the Ravens offense might be in store for another big game in a Monday night opener.

"Las Vegas remains incredibly thin at linebacker, meaning that they could have trouble stopping Baltimore's high-powered rushing attack," Fried wrote. "In fact, the Raiders really struggled against mobile quarterbacks a year ago. Lamar Jackson could wreak havoc against a porous Raiders front seven with the likes of Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins chipping in as well.

"The Ravens could also find success in the passing game too against a young, unproven Raiders secondary. Rashod Bateman and Sammy Watkins will make their Ravens debuts and look to take advantage of a weak group of cornerbacks. Of course, Marquise Brown should take advantage as well."

Football Outsiders: Offensive Line Is Still the Biggest Hole on Roster

Football Outsiders looked at the biggest hole on each roster following the draft. For the Ravens, it's the offensive line.

"The Ravens knew it would be hard to replace Marshal Yanda; they didn't expect to have to replace Orlando Brown Jr. The big man's trade demands made that a reality, however, leaving tackle — a position of unmatched strength just two seasons ago -- a large maybe," Football Outsiders' Robert Weintraub wrote. "Alejandro Villanueva, whom tackle-challenged Pittsburgh was quite content to let walk, was signed to take over on the right side, with Tyre Phillips there as depth.

"And we still don't know how long it will take All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who tore an ACL last season, to return to full strength. The situation is dire enough that Baltimore brought in Andre Smith, who opted out in 2020 and hasn't been useful in at least half a decade, as insurance."

Even though the Ravens signed right guard Kevin Zeitler in free agency and drafted 6-foot-6, 357-pound guard Ben Cleveland in the third round, the interior line also has question marks in Weintraub's opinion.

"Bradley Bozeman was a center at Alabama but has played only guard in the NFL. He's being moved back into the middle," Weintraub wrote. "The only thing certain about [left guard] is that a guy named Ben will be the starter. Whether that is Bredeson, Powers or Cleveland remains to be determined. The first two Bens are gentle young vets who have shown little thus far, while the latter is this year's big third-rounder from Georgia, who the team hopes will seize the spot."

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