Really, 2013 got off to a lousy start when Baltimore wasn't able to host the annual Kickoff Game as the defending Super Bowl champion because the Orioles had a game that night and wouldn't move it. So the Ravens had to go on the road, and they were wiped out at Denver in a record-setting performance by Peyton Manning. Still, the club won three of its next four games and all seemed well. It wasn't. Largely due to an inefficient offense, the Ravens lost four of their next five games by a total of 14 points. The playoffs seemed a long shot at 4-6, but the Baltimore showed the heart of a champion by winning the next four to give themselves hope. That flamed out with blowout losses to New England and at Cincinnati to finish the season.
Despite losing a handful of top contributors off the Super Bowl defense, the Ravens were still fine on that side of the ball. They ranked 12th in yards and points allowed (22.0 ppg). The offense took a huge step back, ranking 29th in yards and 25th in points (20.0). Joe Flacco got his big extension and promptly regressed, completing a career-worst 59.0 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns to 22 picks. Ray Rice had been one of the best all-around backs in the NFL, but he rushed for only 660 yards, a terrible 3.1 yards per carry.
Key Offseason Moves
Baltimore largely took care of its own this offseason. Their top priorities were was re-signing left tackle Eugene Monroe, tight end Dennis Pitta (limited to four games in 2013 due to injury), receiver Jacoby Jones (66 catches, 455 yards) and inside linebacker Daryl Smith (team-leading 123 tackles, five sacks), and the Ravens accomplished all four. The big addition from outside the organization was the greatest receiver in Panthers history, Steve Smith (64 catches, 745 yards, four TDs). He's not the big-play burner he used to be but will be a perfect complement to Torrey Smith as a slot guy. The Ravens' major losses were defensive lineman Arthur Jones, cornerback Corey Graham, linebacker Jameel McClain and right tackle Michael Oher (of "Blindside" fame). Baltimore only wanted to keep Graham.
The Ravens also upgraded at offensive coordinator. Jim Caldwell took the head coaching job in Detroit and Baltimore landed former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak. He is considered a quarterback guru, which should help Flacco. The Ravens have gone 16 seasons without ranking in the Top 10 in total offense -- tied for the fifth-longest streak in history. One question hanging over the team is the status of Rice. He could be facing a multi-game suspension for allegedly assaulting his then-fiancee.
2014 Schedule (all times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Thursday, Sept. 11, Pittsburgh, 8:25 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, at Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, at Indianapolis, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 2, at Pittsburgh, 8:30 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, Tennessee, 1 p.m.
Week 11: BYE
Week 12: Monday, Nov. 24, at New Orleans, 8:30 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, San Diego, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, at Miami, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, Jacksonville, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, at Houston, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Baltimore's schedule is ranked as the fifth-easiest in the NFL with an opponents' 2013 winning percentage of .461. That's the easiest in the AFC North. The Ravens have six games against playoff teams.
Most think that either the Ravens or Bengals will win the division this season, so the Week 1 winner will have an early tiebreaker. Baltimore is a 2.5-point favorite on NFL odds. They split last season, each winning at home. The Ravens' Week 10 20-17 victory against the Bengals had one of the best regulation endings of the season as the Bengals tied it on a 51-yard Hail Mary. The Ravens would pull it out in OT despite just 189 yards of total offense overall and three turnovers.
Perhaps it's a good thing the Ravens get their short-week turnaround out of the way in Week 2, but the last team they would want to play would be Pittsburgh. The teams split last year and as usual they were down to the wire. Ten of the past 12 games between the two teams, including five straight, have been decided by three points or fewer. A big reason Baltimore missed the playoffs last season was a 2-6 road record, so a win in Cleveland Week 3 could bring some confidence. The Ravens have won 11 of the past 12 meetings. To be potentially 3-0 in the division by Week 4 could be a huge advantage for Baltimore.
New addition Smith can't wait for Week 4 to stick it to the Panthers, and he has admitted as much. Baltimore last saw Andrew Luck's Colts in the 2012 wild-card game, a 24-9 Ravens win. The bye week comes at a decent time as it allows Baltimore to heal up for the stretch drive. The Saints and Chargers were playoff teams in 2013, but the other four post-bye opponents all finished under .500. The Jaguars, Texans and Browns finished with a combined record of 10-38. Baltimore beat both Houston and Miami a year ago.
NFL free picks: 'Over' 8.5 wins. It's hard to believe that Flacco and Rice will be as bad as last season and Kubiak is a very respected offensive mind. There don't appear to be any stretches in the schedule where the Ravens might lose 3-4 straight.