Last season in Weeks 1-4, the Baltimore Ravens played four games in a span of 18 days (and won three of them). Also in 2012, Baltimore had one home game (a 31-29 win versus Dallas in Week 6) between Weeks 5-9.
But perhaps what was literally their toughest stretch of games last year, the Ravens played the Steelers twice within 15 days.
That said, I still think the 2013 slate of games will present more challenges to the Ravens, for three reasons.
First, there are many big-time offenses that most Ravens defenders have never played against. Second, there will likely be five new starters on defense (Brandon Williams, Arthur Brown, Elvis Dumervil, Michael Huff, Matt Elam). Third, the Ravens won the Super Bowl last year, so naturally they will get every team's best shot.
The Ravens have been outstanding in divisional games recently. Since 2011, they've gone 10-2 in the AFC North, winning the division title both seasons.
Still, I see five games that could really test the Ravens in 2013. I don't think they will be make-or-break games, because under Harbaugh the Ravens have shown remarkable consistency.
The following five games could all be losses. They probably won't all be wins. But they will likely be the deciding factors in Baltimore's pursuit of home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Week 1, September 5 at Denver, 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC
This is the game that was supposed to be played in Baltimore since the Ravens won the previous Super Bowl. However, a scheduling conflict with the Orioles (who had their schedule set before the Ravens) won't allow that to happen.
Therefore, the Ravens will begin their 2013 season in Denver, which undoubtedly will be a very tough game.
But unlike the double-overtime thriller in the divisional playoffs last January, the Ravens won't be playing at altitude in 13-degree weather. They also won't have to face one of the best sack artists in the NFL in Elvis Dumervil, as he is now a Raven.
Furthermore, after this game, the Ravens will have 10 days off before their next game.
Week 6, October 13 vs. Green Bay, 1 p.m. ET on FOX
For my money, Aaron Rodgers is the best player in football. The Packers did give up the second-most sacks in the league last year (51) but they still got to the divisional round of the playoffs where they scored 31 points on the road against an excellent 49ers defense.
That's exactly a 6-to-1 ratio. Generally, a 2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio is very good.
The Ravens secondary had better be on the same page against Rodgers or they will get carved up.
Week 7, October 20 at Pittsburgh, 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS
Not much needs to be said about this game. If you follow the NFL, and particularly if you follow this rivalry, you know how physical and emotional it is.
Although the Ravens have won three of their last four games in Pittsburgh, all three of those wins have been by three points.
Without Anquan Boldin to make tough catches while absorbing hard hits, Baltimore is going to have to be near perfect to win in Pittsburgh.
Besides the physicality, these games usually decide the division. The winner of the division automatically gets a home playoff game. This is certainly the biggest road game of the year for the Ravens.
Week 14, December 8 vs. Minnesota, 1 p.m. ET on FOX
Peterson is a beast. Even though opponents routinely stacked the box with eight and nine defenders when facing Minnesota last year, Peterson ran for 2,097 yards (second all-time) and 6.0 yards per carry.
He also won the NFL's MVP award.
The very tall task of blocking Allen will fall on the very tall shoulders of Bryant McKinnie (who played nine seasons in Minnesota before signing with Baltimore). Although he was fantastic in the playoffs, McKinnie has been known to be erratic, which isn't good when facing a player like Allen.
In five seasons with the Vikings, Allen has averaged 12 sacks per season. He's averaging 13 sacks per season over his nine-year career, so you know he's going to bring it on every play.
Week 16, December 22 vs. New England, 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC
This is probably the Ravens' biggest game of the year.
It's their final regular-season home game against their toughest opponent in what could very well determine the top seed in the AFC playoffs.
The Ravens won't have Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to match wits with Tom Brady, but they still have elite defenders like Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs (both of whom are much healthier now than they were at end of last season).
Expect this to be a tight, tense, thrilling game with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs on the line.
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