Ranking the 17 games from hardest (Buccaneers) to easiest (Panthers) – The Mercury News

The Ravens pride themselves on their winning culture and on-field success, but sometimes losing has its benefits, too.

After an 8-9 season that ended short of the playoffs, the Ravens entered last month’s NFL draft with the No. 14 overall pick. (Hello, Kyle Hamilton.) And after finishing last in the AFC North for the first time under coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens also got a relatively manageable schedule Thursday, with just five opponents who made the playoffs last season and five last-place finishers. (Hello, Jacksonville Jaguars.)

There are still hurdles to clear inside and outside the division, however, including a handful of Super Bowl contenders. Four months from the Ravens’ season opener, here’s how their schedule measures up, with opponents ordered from most to least difficult.

1. Week 8 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Remember when quarterback Tom Brady was retired and Bruce Arians was still head coach? Every opponent on the Buccaneers’ schedule would’ve preferred that arrangement in 2022. Despite a string of injuries last season, Tampa Bay lost just one game at home and entered the playoffs with a share of the NFL’s best record. Tight end Rob Gronkowski’s future in football is still uncertain, but the ageless Brady led the league in passing yards last season and will have seven Pro Bowl teammates returning. It’s an ideal setup for defensive coordinator turned coach Todd Bowles, and the Ravens have a short week to prepare for their “Thursday Night Football” road trip.

2. Week 18 at Cincinnati Bengals

It can’t end up any worse than the team’s last trip to Paul Brown Stadium, right? With the Ravens’ roster ravaged by injuries and the coronavirus — most notably at quarterback, where Lamar Jackson and Tyler Huntley were unavailable — the team was outgained 575-334 in a day-after-Christmas loss to the Bengals, 41-21. The Ravens’ rebuilt secondary has considerable room for improvement after last year’s two blowout defeats, in which quarterback Joe Burrow set an NFL record for the most passing yards against one team in a single season (941). With this game falling in the final week of the regular season, the stakes for this matchup could be significant — a playoff berth, perhaps? Given the early expectations for both teams, it’ll probably mean something.

3. Week 4 vs. Buffalo Bills

The Bills might be the NFL’s most talented team. They’re ranked third here only because the Ravens get them in Baltimore for the first time since 2018. That Buffalo offense started Nathan Peterman over Josh Allen at quarterback and leaned on Zay Jones at wide receiver. This team has Allen, ascendant after a blistering postseason, along with wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis and rookie running back James Cook. The Bills are spoiled with offensive talent, and their defense still might be the better unit. Buffalo had the NFL’s top pass defense last season, according to Football Outsidersand now it can pair star Tre’Davious White with first-round pick Kaiir Elam at cornerback.

4. Week 5 vs. Cincinnati Bengals

The Ravens will get their first crack at the Bengals this season in Baltimore, and line play could be decisive. Cincinnati left M&T Bank Stadium last October with a decisive 41-17 win and a clear victory in the trenches. Bengals running backs rushed for 111 yards (4.6 per carry) and two touchdowns, dominating late, and Burrow was sacked just once. Ravens running backs, meanwhile, combined for just 29 yards on 11 carries, and Jackson was sacked five times. Both teams upgraded their offensive lines this season, but who’ll win out on the field?

5. Week 13 vs. Denver Broncos

The Ravens held Broncos quarterbacks Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater to a combined 148 passing yards in a 23-7 win in Denver last season. After the Broncos’ trade for quarterback Russell Wilson this offseason, it’s hard to imagine another defensive throttling in Baltimore. Denver is a potential Super Bowl contender, and it has the talent to return Wilson to NFL Most Valuable Player contention, with five talented receivers (wideouts Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam) and an elite running back duo (Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon III). If new coach Nathaniel Hackett can help turn around the defense, the Broncos won’t remain an AFC West pushover.

6. Week 3 at New England Patriots

The Ravens’ second trip to Gillette Stadium in three years will mark their first game against homegrown outside linebacker Matthew Judon — and Pro Bowl quarterback Mac Jones. The Patriots have beefed up their skill position talent since their rain-soaked 2020 victory over the Ravens, adding tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith and wide receivers Kendrick Bourne and DeVante Parker. But their usually buttoned-up defense will be without top cornerbacks JC Jackson and Stephon Gilmore. Coach Bill Belichick is 7-4 all time against John Harbaugh as New England’s coach.

7. Week 15 at Cleveland Browns

This won’t be the Ravens’ first game against the Browns this season, but considering it’s in Cleveland, as well as the relative likelihood that quarterback Deshaun Watson will be available to play, it projects as the tougher matchup. The Browns’ defense should be good enough to keep them in games, with defensive end Myles Garrett getting after quarterbacks, weak-side linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah chasing down ball carriers and cornerback Denzel Ward shadowing top receivers. But if Watson’s legal situation — he still faces 22 active lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault and sexual harassment — keeps him off the field, Cleveland’s offense will be pretty one-dimensional.

8. Week 14 at Pittsburgh Steelers

The Ravens won’t face the Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers until December, by which point Pittsburgh will have probably figured out its quarterback situation. Will coach Mike Tomlin go with Mitchell Trubisky, the former No. 2 overall pick who threw just eight passes for the Bills last season? Or Kenny Pickett, the first-round pick from Pittsburgh? Or even Mason Rudolph, who’s started 10 games over four seasons in Pittsburgh? Whomever the Ravens face, they’ll need more from Jackson. He’s 2-3 against the Steelers in his career, with a 67.4 passer rating and just 4.6 yards per carry.

9. Week 9 at New Orleans Saints

The Saints’ win-now approach has dramatic consequences: traded-away draft picks, salary cap nightmares, many millions of dollars spent on quarterback Taysom Hill. New Orleans’ loss became the Ravens’ gain this offseason, when they signed safety Marcus Williams to a five-year, $70 million deal. In a “Monday Night Football” matchup, he’s set to take on former teammate James Winston, who was one of the NFL’s better quarterbacks last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury on Halloween. The Saints should again have one of the NFL’s tougher defenses, but how much do wide receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara have left to give?

10. Week 2 vs. Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins blitzed Jackson and the Ravens into oblivion in their Week 10 upset last season, winning by double digits even with a banged-up Tua Tagovailoa coming off the bench in emergency quarterback duty. The Ravens will face a far more talented Miami team in September, beefed up with the additions of All-Pro wide receiver Tyreek Hill, Pro Bowl offensive tackle Terron Armstead and standout defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah. New coach Mike McDaniel’s creativity should enliven the offense, but Tagovailoa’s range his as a passer ca n’t be Roethlisberger-esque.

11. Week 7 vs. Cleveland Browns

Yahoo Sports reported in March that some NFL teams believed Watson was likely to face a six-game suspension under the league’s personal-conduct policy. If that’s the case, he probably couldn’t find a less welcoming environment for his Browns debut. The last time the rivals met, Ravens fans watched Jackson carted off the field in Cleveland with what became a season-ending ankle injury. If the Ravens lose to the Bengals in Week 5, they can’t afford to drop another home game in the AFC North here.

12. Week 17 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers’ unlikely postseason appearance last year helped cover up some real shortcomings on both sides of the ball. On offense, Pittsburgh has impressive young talent at running back (Najee Harris), wide receiver (Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and George Pickens) and tight end (Pat Freiermuth), but the team’s offensive line was among the NFL’s worst groups. And defensive end Cameron Heyward, outside linebacker TJ Watt and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick can’t be counted on to fix every hole in an inconsistent defense. This late-season matchup, once again, could prove pivotal in the playoff race.

13. Week 1 at New York Jets

Former Ravens scout Joe Douglas has built a talented, young nucleus as the Jets’ general manager, especially on offense. Recent first- and second-round picks are projected to start at wide receiver (Elijah Moore, Garrett Wilson), running back (Breece Hall), offensive tackle (Mekhi Becton), guard (Alijah Vera-Tucker), defensive tackle (Quinnen Williams) ) and cornerback (Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner). But the Jets won’t level up if last year’s No. 2 overall pick, Zach Wilson, doesn’t develop into even an average quarterback. He went 3-10 as a starter last season, and breaking out in the season opener seems unlikely.

14. Week 6 at New York Giants

It’s never a good sign when a team with almost no playoff hopes has to release one of its more talented players (cornerback James Bradberry) in May because of salary cap constraints. Or when that same team puts a first-round pick (wide receiver Kadarius Toney) on the trading block after only a year in town. There’s a lot of difficult work ahead for new coach Brian Daboll. Maybe most important: finding out whether quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley have a future with the team. Former Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has good talent up front, but not the overall depth he’s used to.

15. Week 16 vs. Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons finished last season with the NFL’s fifth-worst offense and third-worst defense, according to Football Outsiders. That somehow was enough for seven wins. With Matt Ryan shipped off to Indianapolis this offseason and a youth movement underway, Atlanta and new coach Arthur Smith need a can’t-miss quarterback prospect more than they need another season of treading water. A promising draft brought more talented pieces (wide receiver Drake London and outside linebacker Arnold Ebiketie) to the team’s foundation, but Marcus Mariota’s still QB1.

16. Week 12 at Jacksonville Jaguars

Even if quarterback Trevor Lawrence makes the Peyton Manning-esque Year 2 leap that the Jaguars need, there are still a lot of holes here. Wide receiver Christian Kirk is good, but not $18 million-a-year good. Defensive lineman Travon Walker is talented, but talented enough to take No. 1 overall? New coach Doug Pederson will need at least a year to air out the stitch of the Urban Meyer era. He might need at least two to get the team moved out of the AFC’s basement.

17. Week 11 vs. Carolina Panthers

The Panthers have playmakers at every level of their defense (defensive end Brian Burns, weak-side linebacker Shaq Thompson and safety Jeremy Chinn); a bona fide No. 1 wide receiver (DJ Moore); and, when healthy, maybe the NFL’s best running back (Christian McCaffrey). They also have one of the NFL’s worst starting quarterbacks and offensive lines. Sam Darnold finished 29th in the league in QBR last year, and top pick Ikem Ekwonu can provide only so much cover up front.

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