Flawed Ravens can contend in flawed AFC North
Perhaps no franchise in recent memory has started a season 3-0 and looked so thoroughly unimposing as the 2016 Baltimore Ravens. The team’s three games have come at a combined margin of victory of 13 points over opponents that possess just one victory between them. By any objective measure, Baltimore has simply taken advantage of a weaker-than-expected early schedule, and such a patently inadequate sample size creates more confusion than it provides clarity.
But while all of that holds true, it doesn’t change the fact that the team has already banked three victories — nearly a fifth of the entire schedule — and could continue racking up ugly wins in the coming weeks due to more advantageous matchups on the schedule. If so, the Ravens, for all their known flaws and those that have yet to reveal themselves, can contend in a likewise flawed AFC North.
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In the eyes of most observers, the Pittsburgh Steelers entered 2016 as the runaway favorites in the division and, in light of the suspension for New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, the frontrunner to represent the conference in Super Bowl LI. Though they remain a force in the AFC and could become an even greater threat with the return of All-Pro tailback Le’Veon Bell, last week’s 34-3 trouncing at the hands of the in-state rival Philadelphia Eagles has curbed their momentum. Pittsburgh’s complete lack of a pass rush also raises some valid concerns.
The Cincinnati Bengals have also run into trouble early in the season. A narrow defeat of the New York Jets in Week 1 combined with back-to-back losses to AFC opponents has put Andy Dalton and company behind the eight ball. A 22-7 win over the lowly Miami Dolphins on Thursday Night Football did little to quell the doubts about Cincinnati. Though they possess far greater talent than Baltimore, they continue to play below their ceiling in pivotal games.
Elsewhere in Cleveland, the Browns continue to flounder. Starting quarterback Robert Griffin III could miss the remainder of the season after fracturing his coracoid bone and replacement Josh McCown expects to miss several games with a shoulder injury of his own. In their place, the team has turned to third-round pick Cody Kessler, a rather green signal-caller from Southern California with limited physical tools. Further complicating the offensive outlook, former All-Pro wide receiver Josh Gordon announced Thursday that he plans to enter an in-patient rehabilitation facility. While a potentially positive decision for a player with multiple suspensions for banned substances, it could also spell the end of his run in Cleveland.
Meanwhile, the Ravens’ aforementioned easy upcoming schedule could see them trend in the opposite direction of their division rivals.
Baltimore’s next two games take place at M&T Bank Stadium, with this weekend’s opponent — the 2-1 Oakland Raiders — traveling across the country for a 1 p.m. local kickoff. West Coast teams facing such circumstances generally struggle regardless of opponent on account of the players’ body clocks. Even without the time-zone disadvantage, the Raiders have struggled mightily on defense, see their scoring output diminish week by week and, like the Ravens, have yet to win this season by more than seven points.
Following the bout with Oakland, Baltimore hosts Washington, the current cellar dweller of its division. With Kirk Cousins’ play validating the team’s decision not to sign him to a long-term deal and the defense ranking among the league’s worst in nearly every statistical category, the reigning NFC East champs could quite realistically drop the Week 5 tilt to the Ravens.
The subsequent two games take the Ravens on the road, but in a fortunate twist in scheduling, both take place at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The lack of true back-to-back weeks of travel limits the home-field advantage for the New York Giants and Jets. As a last gift from the schedule makers, Baltimore follows the New Jersey trip with a bye week right before their first matchup of the season with the Steelers.
The schedule grows much harder during the second half of the year, especially during the closing-month stretch that includes road games against the Patriots, Steelers and Bengals. Barring dramatic improvement in areas such as the ground game and pass protection, the Ravens can expect to lose more than one of those matchups.
All of which makes the September and October schedule even more important. The Ravens, even in their current state, need only pull a few upsets to remain competitive in the standings. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati can knock off any team on a given week, but they have also proven themselves capable of clunkers. That doesn’t guarantee Baltimore a playoff berth, but it does offer more hope than many had for the team at the start of year.
Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. He has bylines at NFL.com, SB Nation, Sports on Earth, and other outlets. He also serves as the senior reporter and editor for Acme Packing Company, a Green Bay Packers blog.