Schedule Not As Easy As You Think

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Based on 2008's results, the Ravens boast the NFL's fifth-easiest schedule, but don't think the road to the playoffs will be lined with flowers and sunshine.

At first blush, things look like they've shaped up pretty well for the purple and black to return to the postseason.

Still, there could be some major potholes along the way.

Sure, the Ravens finished 11-5 and advanced to the AFC Championship game, the first-ever team to do so with a rookie head coach and quarterback.

There is room for optimism with the return of 19 of 22 starters, including a matured Joe Flacco, a stellar stable of running backs and a defense led by linebacker Ray Lewis.

Baltimore is one of the lucky clubs that does not have a glut of road games in a row, unlike last season when five came over a span of six weeks.

And, the 10-37-1 combined record of the Ravens' first three home opponents suggests the potential for a hot start.

That's the good news.

Those dreaming of a clean postseason run will receive a dose of reality upon closer inspection.

First, the NFL is a league based on the ability to be competitive every year. It's called parity. There is just under five months before the first footballs are kicked off, so teams can reshape themselves.

In 2007, the Miami Dolphins turned in a 1-15 campaign. One year later, they were 11-5 and AFC East Champions. Last season, the Kansas City Chiefs were 2-14, and the Detroit Lions finished an historic 0-16. Can they rebound in the stunning fashion Bill Parcells and the Dolphins did? Not likely, but it goes to show that you can't simply write off a season-opening matchup with Kansas City and a Week 15 showdown against the Lions.

The initial part of the schedule is not as forgiving as some would say, as well.

The teams coming to M&T Bank Stadium first are not coming off good showings, but San Diego and Minnesota were playoff contenders in 2008, and the New England Patriots' 11-5 record could have put them there if they didn't lose a tiebreaker to Miami.

Speaking of the Patriots, head coach Bill Belichick had his charges playing great football even though All-World quarterback Tom Brady was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered in the season opener. Brady, who has three Super Bowl rings, two Super Bowl Most Valuable Player awards and four Pro Bowls, should be in top form when he hosts the Ravens Oct. 4.

Baltimore did get a nice draw for their bye, which falls on Week 7. That will allow the team to take a breather after going non-stop since training camp opened in late July.

Of course, a tough challenge lies ahead.

Following a prime-time game against the Cleveland Browns in their home stadium, the Ravens welcome the Indianapolis Colts, who have defeated Baltimore six times in seven chances since 2001.

The Colts contest sets up what most Ravens fans are most eagerly anticipating - Sunday Night Football against the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

Since both franchises are in the AFC North, they automatically square off twice a year. Since they both went to the conference title game last season, they battled a third time. Each one went to Pittsburgh in what were some of the league's hardest-fought slugfests in recent history.

The rivals were left battered and bruised, and a nation-wide audience will get to see these gladiators go at it again on NBC.

Then, the Ravens travel to historic Lambeau Field for Monday Night Football against the Green Bay Packers, who always play well at home, before a two-game homestand with Detroit and the Jay Cutler-led Chicago Bears.

Closing out the year, Baltimore again goes on the road for what should be another tough matchup against the Steelers - perhaps even moreso if there are playoff implications - and a West Coast trip to Oakland.

So, while fans can get excited about the possibility for another postseason run, it might not be as "easy" as the Ravens' opponent winning percentage of .438 attests.

That's why the games are played, and that's why football insiders always focus solely on the week ahead.

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