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Baltimore’s historic 2019 season ended with a “car crash” — and now, the Ravens seek to get back behind the wheel.
The Ravens are the sixth team in NFL history to win at least 14 regular season games but fail to win a playoff game. The previous five all rebounded the following year with double-digit wins and a top three playoff seed, and the 2006 Indianapolis Colts were the only one to win a Super Bowl.
Baltimore is loaded enough to replicate that. Lamar Jackson is poised to build off his MVP season, a healthy Marquise Brown is set to make a big step up in his second year and the Ravens drafted J.K. Dobbins in the second round to play a “significant role” in Baltimore’s bid to build an “indefensible offense.”
The interior offensive line and wide receiving corps will likely keep it from reaching such lofty heights, but the multifaceted Jackson in this creative offense should be every bit as explosive as it was when it crushed multiple single-season rushing records last year.
Despite being ranked in the top five in scoring and total defense, the Ravens D needed to improve on its franchise worst 4.4 yards per carry allowed to opponents in 2019. Enter Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe for pennies on the dollar, and first-rounder Patrick Queen, who is already being labeled “Ray Lewis Jr.” If he’s even half that good, this should be a dominant defense in 2020, especially with D.C. native Tavon Young returning in the secondary.
As if that’s not enough, Baltimore has the league’s easiest schedule (for what little that’s worth), will be the NFL’s least-traveled team and has already been installed as the favorite in every game this season.
Oh, did I mention 11 of last year’s record-tying 12 Pro Bowlers are signed for 2020, including three still playing on their rookie contracts? The championship window in Charm City is wide-open.
So, like Virginia recovering from their historic NCAA Tournament loss to UMBC, count on the Ravens coming back with a vengeance on a nonstop train to Tampa Bay on Super Bowl Sunday.
Marty Schottenheimer is about to get some company.
With eight or more wins this year, Mike Tomlin will tie Schottenheimer for the head coach with the longest stretch of non-losing seasons in NFL history. Considering Tomlin kept the streak alive despite a revolving door at quarterback in 2019, he’s more likely to get back to a Super Bowl than fall woefully short of the record.
Pittsburgh has to be stoked to have Ben Roethlisberger back after the future Hall of Fame QB missed the vast majority of last season with an arm injury. Even if the 37-year-old is just a game-manager at this phase of his career, that’s enough to distribute the ball to playmakers like JuJu Smith-Schuster, the newly-acquired Eric Ebron and rookie Chase Claypool, who has been turning heads in the Steel City.
The defense was quietly ranked in the top six in scoring and total defense last year, with youngsters T.J. Watt, Devin Bush and Minkah Fitzpatrick poised to breakout in 2020. This unit could be special.
Baltimore is generating all the headlines but Pittsburgh is a real threat to steal (or steel?) away everything their rival hopes to achieve this year.
The Factory of Sadness keeps churning out the hits.
After quickly moving on from Freddie Kitchens — a coach the Browns never should have hired and got way too much credit for the team’s 5-3 finish to 2018 — the team demonstrated its trademark dysfunction by reportedly handcuffing new coach Kevin Stefanski before he even started the gig. This may or may not end up being a big deal in the end, but it’s a bad look for a franchise chock full of them.
But on the plus side, Cleveland is in the midst of a youth movement. In addition to the 37-year-old Stefanski, the Browns hired 32-year-old Maryland-native Andrew Berry as general manager to “aggressively acquire talent.”
The headliner on that list is Austin Hooper, who should provide a solid 1-2 punch at tight end for Baker Mayfield in what has to be a make-or-break season for the former No. 1 overall pick. Alongside the underrated Nick Chubb and uber-talented Odell Beckham Jr., this could be an explosive offense if 10th overall pick Jedrick Wills Jr. and free agent tackle Jack Conklin pay off immediate dividends.
The defense lost rookie Grant Delpit to a season-ending injury, which hurts an already-thin secondary beyond Denzel Ward. The defensive line is solid and the unit can be pretty good overall if young linebackers like Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki progress well.
So, corny motto and all, Stefanski could have Cleveland in playoff contention right off the bat.
Burrow’s Bengals. Get used to it, Cincinnati.
Joe Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, takes over as the franchise quarterback in Cincy after the underwhelming Andy Dalton era. He seems to have all the tools to be great; it’s just a matter of whether the organization will allow him to be.
Cincinnati is notoriously cheap, so it’s pretty notable the Bengals just went on their first free agent splurge in a decade to add Trae Waynes and D.J. Reader to a defense that ranked fourth-worst in total defense last season. Alongside longtime stalwarts Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, the Bengals D might actually be pretty good if injuries and other circumstances break their way.
However, it rarely does in Cincinnati. If Burrow is legit, he could conceivably lift this team to six wins, but this is clearly a team in rebuilding — and nothing helps that effort more than picking in the top five again.