The 2013 season didn't go according to plan for the Baltimore Ravens, but there's reason for hope in 2014.
It was clear that there would be at least a season of transition for the franchise as it moved on from Ray Lewis and Ed Reed among other difference-makers on the roster. Removing such inspirational players is bound to have a deleterious effect on a team.
Much of the team's performance next season hinges on Joe Flacco. After signing a ridiculous contract last offseason, he threw 22 interceptions—his highest total ever—and completed 59.0 percent of his passes, the second-lowest percentage of his career.
Head coach John Harbaugh thinks that Flacco will be much improved in 2014.
"It doesn’t matter about last year," he said, per BaltimoreRavens.com's Ryan Mink. "Joe’s responsibility is to learn from it and he learned from every mistake, he learned from every game."
The hiring of Gary Kubiak should help the former Super Bowl MVP regain his old form.
With Steve Smith's arrival and Dennis Pitta and Jacoby Jones remaining in Baltimore, Flacco should have enough weapons to pull a major turnaround in 2014.
Don't be surprised if Baltimore as a whole does the same thing.
|2014 Baltimore Ravens Regular-Season Schedule|
|Week||Opponent||Time (ET)||TV Info|
|1||vs. Cincinnati Bengals||1 p.m.||CBS|
|2||vs. Pittsburgh Steelers||8:25 p.m.||CBS/NFL Network|
|3||at Cleveland Browns||1 p.m.||CBS|
|4||vs. Carolina Panthers||1 p.m.||CBS|
|5||at Indianapolis Colts||1 p.m.||CBS|
|6||at Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1 p.m.||CBS|
|7||vs. Atlanta Falcons||1 p.m.||Fox|
|8||at Cincinnati Bengals||1 p.m.||CBS|
|9||at Pittsburgh Steelers||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|10||vs. Tennessee Titans||1 p.m.||CBS|
|12||at New Orleans Saints||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|13||vs. San Diego Chargers||1 p.m.||CBS|
|14||at Miami Dolphins||1 p.m.||CBS|
|15||vs. Jacksonville Jaguars||1 p.m.||CBS|
|16||at Houston Texans||1 p.m.||CBS|
|17||vs. Cleveland Browns||1 p.m.||CBS|
At least the Ravens didn't draw the NFC West. That would've been a worst-case scenario.
The NFC South isn't much easier, though. The New Orleans Saints are one of the best teams in the league, the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers should see reversals of fortunes and the Carolina Panthers should still have one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Baltimore at least knows that every other team in the AFC North is in the same boat. There's no major disadvantage to be had in that regard.
The Ravens will feel a little unlucky for having drawn both the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts away and the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars at home. The former teams should be stronger opponents than the latter in 2014, so facing them on the road is a bit of a disadvantage in that regard.
On the whole, the schedule isn't particularly daunting. Nobody can expect to get a cakewalk in today's NFL.
But the chance is certainly there for the Ravens to make a quick turnaround and once again be the class of the AFC North.
The intra-division battles will absolutely be huge for the Ravens.
The AFC North looks pretty wide open for 2014. The Cleveland Browns are the Browns, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have some issues that still need to be addressed. Their defense isn't getting any younger.
That leaves the Cincinnati Bengals. Both games against Cincy will be big for Baltimore, but the most important one will be at Paul Brown Stadium, where the Ravens have lost in each of the last two seasons.
If you want to win your division, you pretty much have to beat the toughest competition on the road. In this case, it means the Ravens winning in Cincinnati.
The most intriguing inter-conference games for the Ravens are at home to the Falcons and on the road against the Saints.
Atlanta should be a lot better than it was last season. The Falcons ran into every injury possible and nothing but bad luck. That has to turn around in 2014. They should be contenders in the loaded NFC South.
If the Ravens want to be taken seriously as an elite team, they should beat Atlanta.
The same can't be said for their meeting with the Saints. New Orleans' defense made huge strides in 2013, and it got even better with the addition of safety Jairus Byrd. It's still pretty early, but the Saints have to be considered contenders for Super Bowl XLIX.
Going into the Superdome and winning will be tough for the Ravens, but the way they perform will serve as a barometer for where they can go in the regular season and possibly the playoffs.