After upgrading their talent during free agency and the draft, it’s not hard to argue the Ravens have gotten better. The bigger question is, how much better? Good enough to make the playoffs in the AFC?
Here are three reasons why I think the Ravens’ path to the playoffs still looks very challenging.
1. Don’t expect the Bengals or Steelers to take a step back.
The Ravens haven’t won the AFC North since 2012, and they won’t be favored to win it this year. The Bengals and Steelers remain strong. Despite losing wide receivers Marvin Jones (Lions) and Mohamed Sanu (Falcons) during free agency, the Bengals drafted a playmaking cornerback in Round 1 (William Jackson III) and another potential playmaker in Round 2 (wide receiver Tyler Boyd). Quarterback Andy Dalton still has elite weapons like wide receiver A. J. Green and tight end Tyler Eifert, plus a diverse running back duo in Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard. The defense is solid. The Bengals aren’t going anywhere.
Neither are the Steelers, despite losing wide receiver Martavis Bryant to suspension. The Steelers think their pass defense should improve after drafting corners Artie Burns and Sean Davis. Their offense should remain one of the NFL’s most potent, led by quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown, and running back Le’Veon Bell.
It’s not hard to envision the Bengals and Steelers reaching at least 10 wins again.
2. The AFC wild card race won’t be a picnic either.
Here are two teams with losing records in 2015 to watch – the Raiders and the Jaguars. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr keeps improving, and he should be better protected after the Raiders signed left guard Kelechi Osemele away from the Ravens. Few people expected the Jaguars to come away with both defensive back Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Myles Jack in the draft. They Jaguars’ defense will make plays. Interestingly, the Ravens visit Jacksonville (Week 3) and host Oakland (Week 4). Those games could have tie-breaker implications by Week 17.
3. The fourth quarter of the Ravens’ schedule is tough.
Overall, the Ravens got a better break on the schedule in 2016 than in 2015, with far less travel, particularly early in the season. But check out the last four games – at New England, vs. Philadelphia, at Pittsburgh on Christmas, and at Cincinnati on New Year’s Day. Winning two out of those last four wouldn’t be bad. But that may not be enough, unless the Ravens stack at least eight wins during the first 12 games.
Conclusion: If the Ravens make the playoffs, nobody should say they didn’t deserve it. The road to the postseason looks anything but easy.