Baltimore Ravens begin 20th NFL season as AFC North dark horse
The Baltimore Ravens will kick off their 20th anniversary in the NFL as the team host the Buffalo Bills in their season opener.
In 1996, the Art Modell and company arrived in Baltimore after leaving Cleveland, and since the move, the Ravens have seen more success in 19 seasons than the Browns ever did. Super Bowl champions in 2000 and again in 2012, the Ravens are just three seasons removed from last lifting the NFL's most important prize.
Despite some rough season after the move to Baltimore, the franchise has qualified for ten NFL playoffs. Last year the Ravens recorded a 5-11 record, missing out on the playoffs for only the second time in eight seasons.
This year, Jim Harbaugh's team is expected to play second fiddle to AFC North rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, the Ravens have been selected as the division's dark horse by many, and depending on the results of the rivals' two encounters, the Ravens could return to the NFL playoffs.
The Ravens' 2015 season was affected by constant injuries to key players. The team lost players on both sides of the ball, but were decimated most by the loss of quarterback Joe Flacco.
The veteran quarterback only appeared in ten of the Ravens' games in 2015, throwing for 14 touchdowns. His touchdown pass numbers were down from the year before when Flacco threw for 27. Only 30-years old, a healthy Flacco could be the main difference between the Ravens making the postseason.
It isn't just the return of Flacco that will help Baltimore in the tough and tumultuous AFC North. Linebacker Terrell Suggs, Baltimore's best pass rusher, missed 15 games last season. His loss subtracted a potential double-digit return in sacks.
His linebacker partner Elvis Dumervil wasn't the same without Suggs. The Pro Bowl linebacker started all 16 games for the Ravens, but returned a mere six sacks compared to the 17 he collected in 2014. Having both back fit and health should give the Ravens the stingy defense they have always been known for.
Ravens' top draft pick, Ronnie Stanley, drafted sixth overall, should help improve the Ravens' offensive line. A second-team All-American at Notre Dame in 2015, Stanley is quick of feet and mind. He had numerous offers to play collegiate basketball at Pac-10 universities before ultimately choosing to play football at Notre Dame. With such quick feet, Stanley will help in keeping Flacco safe in the pocket. He will also be fast enough to get ahead of his running backs to make blocks down field.
The Ravens' season and playoff hopes all pend on them keeping their key veterans healthy for a 16 game regular season. If Baltimore lose key difference makers like they did a year ago, then the Ravens will see another below .500 record. However, if those players can stay healthy, the Ravens could win the AFC North and once in the NFL's playoffs, anything can happen.