No Super Bowl champion has ever treated the subsequent offseason like the Baltimore Ravens.
In a bold, yet calculated series of moves, the Ravens have a very different roster than the one that played in New Orleans seven months and two days ago.
They've spent nearly the entire offseason hearing about the pieces they've lost – particularly defensive icons Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
"I really appreciate that," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "I'd send [the pundits] thank you notes at every opportunity. The more that they say those kinds of things, it makes me feel better about our chances."
Tonight, the entire nation and even the Ravens themselves get their first look at how it will all work out. It will be a tough test against a team that Harbaugh said has no weaknesses – the Denver Broncos – at their place.
But what everyone will be looking for and judging, fair or not, is whether the Ravens' offseason remodeling was a sound project.
"It's the first game of the year. That's what people want to know," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "'They're not there, so what's next?' That's the big question mark until we go out there and play a real game – well for everyone else, not us."
The Ravens starters didn't play particularly well in the preseason. The offense scored just two touchdowns and turned the ball over five times. The defense had some communication issues in the first game, then trouble stopping the run in the second. It put it together in the third.
The Broncos, who finished last year's regular season with the top AFC seed, will pose a stiffer challenge. And they won't wait for the new-look Ravens to be on the same page.
The Ravens are ready to come out firing.
"It's live bullets now," safety James Ihedigbo said. "It's the real deal. These games count. You've got the top offense and a top defense."
"We've got all our bullets in the barrel and we're going to shoot all of them," added fullback Vonta Leach.
Ihedigbo and Leach were on last year's team. They are more of a known commodity. The unknowns players include wide receiver Brandon Stokley, center Gino Gradkowski, safety Michael Huff, linebacker Daryl Smith and defensive linemen Marcus Spears and Chris Canty.
Canty said the Ravens were still cleaning some things up in practice this week. He said he feels good about where the unit is at heading into the season, but also said, "we'll continue to get better the more we play together."
The Ravens defense looks strong on paper. Torrey Smith said without hesitation that this year's defense is better than last year's. But it has to all work in unison starting Thursday night.
"Football is the only game where you can't put an All-Star team together and have it work out," Spears said. "Guys have to gel and play together. That's what we've been doing over OTAs and camp, and hopefully it'll produce fruit for us."
The Ravens left for Denver not nervous about their remodeled team's debut, but exhilarated.
Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees was talking about it to his son, who lives in Denver, Monday night. The defense spent each preseason game practicing one specific thing, whether it's pressure, run stuffing or pass coverage. Now it all gets to come together, and Pees is the conductor.
"I'm really excited about it," Pees said. "I'm really excited to see this team play and see where we are and then go from there."
Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell noted that the Ravens take an exam every week. By starting with the Broncos, it's like having to take finals in Week 1.
"It presents a great challenge for us, but I think our team is one that loves a challenge, and we've been preparing for this for quite some time," Caldwell said. "It's always good to see how we react. Literally, we have a lot of new guys as well, so that's going to be a lot of fun."