The NFL season is around the corner. Just two days from now, the Atlanta Falcons will travel to Philadelphia to take on the Super Bowl Champion Eagles. The Baltimore Ravens will start the campaign this Sunday, at 1 p.m., as the team hosts the Buffalo Bills at M&T Bank Stadium. The start of the season comes with high hopes for Baltimore. It is a crucial year, as the team has missed the playoffs the past three years in a row. The theme of the last two years for the Ravens has been missing the playoffs by just one cruel play. In response to the shortcomings, Baltimore overhauled the offense and provided a new administration on defense. With a new high powered offense and a strong and aggressive defense, Baltimore moves forward, expecting to break back into the postseason this year.
Predicting the outcome of a season is always a difficult prospect. Uncontrollable variables put predictors at odds with reality, which rarely leads to complete correctness. With that in mind, I will keep predictions for scenarios that require many factors to align, broad. When diving into specifics, I will also try to use data to back up my ideas and claims. These guidelines should be able to facilitate relatively believable, and hopefully accurate predictions.
The biggest and most important prediction one can make regarding a specific team in the National Football League would regard the season’s outcome. Attempting to accurately predict Baltimore’s season outcome this year is particularly difficult, as the roster saw a great amount of turnover in the past offseason, specifically on the offensive side of the ball. Regardless, it is very doubtful that the Ravens could get any worse on offense. Baltimore placed 27th in the league last year in total yards per game. If not for the stout defense, which was able to pitch three shutouts, Baltimore would not have been able to stay afloat in the first half of the season.
In the first half of the season, the offense struggled like nothing seen before. Joe Flacco, unhealthy with a lingering back injury, was visibly uncomfortable. It did not aid him that receivers Jeremy Maclin and Mike Wallace were unable to live up to potential. To make matters worse, Terrance West revealed himself as incapable of being a full-time starter at running back. The offense was on life support, and it was an all hands on deck situation to try to bring it back to life. The Ravens started to click around midseason. Flacco was in better shape, Mike Wallace stepped up to the plate, and Alex Collins bailed out the struggling Ravens rushing attack. A whirlwind of new potential set in. Baltimore went from scoring an average 21.75 points per game in the first eight games of the season to 25.625 in the final eight.
Baltimore finished the year with a much-improved offense. Remembering that, it is inferable that the Ravens offense, upgraded in the offseason as well, will start in a better position than last year’s team. Joe Flacco, now healthy and on a mission to protect his crown, has new receivers with whom he has developed chemistry with this past offseason. Alex Collins also returns. Along with a decent offensive line, he should be able to provide a steady stream of rushing yards. Something that Baltimore has lacked since the 2014 season.
The stout defense remains mostly the same in the personnel department. The one major change that came to the unit took place at defensive coordinator. Dean Pees, the longtime defensive coordinator for Baltimore, retired. He was replaced by Don “Wink” Martindale, who served as the Ravens linebackers coach under Pees. Martindale is installing a new system on defense that calls for more pressure given to opposing quarterbacks. This will be done through various blitzes and other schemes that Martindale has already begun to implement. One of the chief criticisms that Pees faced during his time in Baltimore was that his defensive play calling was too soft. His infamous prevent defense was unable to stop opposing offenses from disappointing Ravens fans.
Not everything is bright and shiny for the defense, however. Baltimore lost star cornerback, Jimmy Smith, to a suspension for the first four games. The NFL suspended Smith, without pay, as the league believes that he violated the personal conduct policy. Smith was a shutdown cornerback last year, and his absence will leave Baltimore without the team’s top cornerback. Baltimore also lost rookie first-round tight end, Hayden Hurst, for the first few weeks of the season. Hurst suffered a stress fracture in his foot.
The general feeling around the Ravens is that the team will be improved, but to what degree? Some argue slightly but the team will miss the playoffs, while others argue that the team will contend for a Super Bowl title. Baltimore may not be as polarizing a team as the Cleveland Browns, per se, but debates are still held nonetheless. By removing my Ravens fan hat and putting on my analyst hat, I have come to the conclusion that Baltimore will be significantly improved. But one must remember that the NFL is not always about a team’s overall competence, but the schedule as well. Baltimore’s schedule, to the average viewer, seems daunting. Baltimore will face off against six teams that played into the postseason last year, including the Pittsburgh Steelers, who the Ravens will see twice. Baltimore will also meet the Chargers, who many slate as the next champions of the AFC West.
Before I start to predict the actual outcome of individual games and the season, I want to preface by saying that these are preliminary assumptions. New issues can arise at any moment throughout the season, altering the team’s path. While making these predictions, I will keep in mind and factor in normal issues that teams face. Players are bound to be injured, bad calls are bound to be made. All of the upcoming conjectures will have these and other typical influences factored into them.
The Baltimore Ravens will finish the regular season with a record of 11-5. In order to break down this calculation, one must take a look at the schedule. I currently project the Ravens to win against these four out of division teams, fairly easily: the Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I also project that the Ravens will, at least, split the series with two division rivals. The two rivals likely being the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals. I believe that is also likely that the Ravens will sweep at least one of these division opponents, the most likely target being the Browns. With these opponents in mind, Baltimore will win conservatively six, generously seven games.
The more difficult contests for the Ravens will come against seven other opponents, including one divisional rival. These teams are the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons, Kansas City Chiefs, and Los Angeles Chargers. Examining the Steelers alone, the Ravens usually battle this team with great ferocity on the field. I typically would mark an even series as a safe bet, however, the Steelers are a very volatile team. Pittsburgh may start out the year in bad shape but could end it with a huge win streak. To me, Baltimore’s success against Pittsburgh depends upon whether or not that team can hold through the tumultuous offseason. If Pittsburgh can heal the wounds of brothers torn apart, the team may be able to produce one final division run before decline sets in. If not, the imminent demise of the Steelers will start this year, leaving the Ravens as sole owners of the AFC North. To be safe, and to play this conservatively, I will award Pittsburgh with victories in both games over the Ravens.
Of the remaining teams in the group listed above, the Ravens are most likely to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs. The loss of Alex Smith will be felt throughout the Midwest. Although the team has confidence in Patrick Mahomes, I do not and will award Baltimore with the team’s eighth win. That leaves five teams. In all honesty, these remaining games are toss-ups and could go either way. The Titans and Chargers, based on rosters and coaching, are really no better than Baltimore. For that reason, I will award the Ravens with these two wins, improving the team’s win tally to ten. All three of the remaining teams reside in the NFC South and played in the postseason last year. Baltimore may get swept by these three teams, but more realistically, the Ravens will sneak out a win against one of the three. I will pin the win on the Panthers. The team is always unsteady and fluctuates from year to year. If the pattern continues, Carolina should be less powerful this year. This elevates the win tally to 11. With this amount of success, Baltimore would undoubtedly make the postseason. From there, the team would compete for a Super Bowl birth, and potentially a championship.