As we make our climb up my predicted AFC North standings, the next team to address is the Ravens. Yes, I have the Ravens as the third team.
Let's be honest, there was no way I was going to win here. If I picked the Ravens to take the division, I would be accused of being a Ravens homer. If I put them second, I would be accused of playing it safe and being too boring. By putting Baltimore third, I know I will get that I'm being tough on the team so no one thinks I'm a Ravens homer. I think that about covers it.
So, how did I make this decision? I went with my gut. And my gut says Joe Flacco will have a career year. The problem for the Ravens is they have too many question marks from their aging offensive line to their lack of a pass rush.
Here's the link to the preview page for the Ravens. And here are five things you need to know about the Ravens:
1. Joe Flacco is primed for a career year: He has more confidence than ever after coming within one failed catch of leading Baltimore to the Super Bowl. The Ravens added Jacoby Jones as a third receiver to go with Torrey Smith, giving Flacco his fastest group of targets yet. New quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, a stickler for fundamentals and mechanics, was brought in to get more consistency out of Flacco. This is the first year where it feels as if Flacco is in total control of the offense. Going no-huddle in the preseason, Flacco looks like Peyton Manning when he's calling out plays at the line of scrimmage. As far as motivation goes, it doesn't hurt that Flacco is entering the final year of his contract.
2. Bad year to lose Terrell Suggs: There's no timetable on the return of Suggs, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year who is out indefinitely with an Achilles injury. The Ravens need him as soon as possible when it comes to this year's schedule. Baltimore plays 13 games against Pro Bowl quarterbacks, including four Super Bowl-winning ones (Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Peyton Manning). Generating a pass rush is going to be a challenge. With Suggs out, the current players on the roster accounted for 25 of the team's 48 sacks last season. If the Ravens give these quarterbacks too much time, they'll get picked apart.
3. The offensive line is ancient by NFL standards: The Ravens could end up starting three linemen who are at least 32 years old. But age is only part of the problem with this group. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie is dealing with a weight issue again. Left guard Bobbie Williams is coming off season-ending ankle surgery. Center Matt Birk missed a large portion of training camp with a back injury. The right side of the line is the team's strength. Marshal Yanda is one of the best right guards in the league, and Michael Oher has made improvements this offseason. This represents the X factor for the Ravens' offense this year.
4. Special teams is a focus: The Ravens were one of four teams to allow three touchdowns on returns last season. That didn't sit particularly well with coach John Harbaugh, who was the longtime special-teams coach with the Philadelphia Eagles. Improving this area was a priority for Baltimore, which made Corey Graham, a Pro Bowl special-teams player last season, its first signing in free agency. The Ravens also re-signed Brendon Ayanbadejo, a three-time Pro Bowl special-teams player. It would be a big disappointment if the Ravens gave up the same number of big returns as last season.
5. This could be the Ravens' final season with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed: Lewis refuses to discuss retirement even though he is entering his 17th NFL season. But he once said he can't see himself playing past 37 years old, and he turned 37 in May. Lewis started off strong last season and was among the NFL's top inside linebackers in the first half. Then, after missing four games with a toe injury, he seemed to wear down toward the end of the year. For Reed, it's not a matter of calling it quits. He wants to play another four or five seasons. But he's entering the final year of his contract, and the Ravens' priority is re-signing Flacco. It's hard to imagine the Ravens' defense without these future Hall of Famers.
DIVISION FINISH: 3rd -- There are major questions, from the loss of Terrell Suggs to an aging offensive line. The lineup of strong quarterbacks on the schedule only compounds the problem. You can't expect John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco to get to the playoffs every year.