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Ravens roundtable: Breaking down the toughest tests, best games and more in the 2022 schedule

The Ravens haven’t played a game since early January, haven’t won a game since late November and haven’t beaten a 2021 playoff team since mid-September. But with the release of the NFL’s 2022 schedule Thursday — and the expected return of a litany of injured starters — hope springs eternal in Baltimore.

The Ravens, looking to return to the postseason after an 8-9 season, will open their slate with a four-game stretch against AFC East opponents and finish it with an AFC North-heavy itinerary. In between, they’ll face Super Bowl contenders and perennial also-rans. They’ll play games on Sunday, Monday, Thursday and maybe even Saturday. They’ll take on a division where Ben Roethlisberger and Baker Mayfield are no longer Lamar Jackson’s toughest competition at quarterback.

Four months from the Ravens’ season opener, 2022 predictions are almost entirely speculative. But someone’s got to make them. Here’s how Baltimore Sun reporters Childs Walker and Jonas Shaffer and editor C.J. Doon see the team’s schedule shaking out.

Who’s the best team on the Ravens’ schedule?

Childs Walker: The Buffalo Bills sure looked like the best team in the league until the last seconds of their playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, and they have fortified their roster since that all-time classic. They have a dangerous passing offense led by Josh Allen, one of the top five quarterbacks in the league, and a defense that was actually their best unit in 2021. The Ravens will get them at home, but the Bills will be quite the October measuring stick.

Jonas Shaffer: It’s probably the Bills. As of Friday, they had the NFL’s best Super Bowl odds, according to the DraftKings Sportsbook, which is all the more impressive considering the gauntlet of AFC teams standing in their way. Buffalo should have a top-five offense and a top-five defense, and now it even has Matt Araiza, AKA the “Punt God.”

If the Bills aren’t the Ravens’ toughest opponent, the Buccaneers are. Look at their depth chart and try to find an obvious weakness. Squint, and you can maybe find one or two. Depth is a concern, of course, one that revealed itself when injuries knocked Tampa Bay off course last season. But quarterback Tom Brady’s game management keeps the pass rush at bay and receivers happy, and the defense has been reliably sound under coordinator (and now head coach) Todd Bowles.

C.J. Doon: The Buccaneers. Brady is back, along with wide receiver Chris Godwin, cornerback Carlton Davis and center Ryan Jensen. The Bucs have some holes after losing starting guards Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa, safety Jordan Whitehead and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, but the additions of wide receiver Russell Gage and guard Shaq Mason should help keep this offense rolling. If Brady can maintain his NFL Most Valuable Player-worthy level at age 45, this will be the Ravens’ toughest test.

Which game are you most looking forward to?

Walker: Though the Ravens held the AFC’s top seed after Week 12, you could argue their slide actually began with a Week 10 loss in Miami in which they could not protect quarterback Lamar Jackson from the Dolphins’ blitzes. So they will surely be eager for revenge in their home opener against a team that added wide receiver Tyreek Hill in the offseason. Will the Ravens have their pass blocking in order? Will they show off their recaptured mojo by stomping the Dolphins as they did to start the 2019 season? We shouldn’t overstate the importance of anything that happens in Week 2, but this one will tell us a few things.

Shaffer: Give me Ravens vs. Bengals on “Sunday Night Football.” Recent history suggests the Week 5 game in Baltimore won’t be competitive, and nothing drives a narrative like a blowout. But who’s getting blown out? Last year, Cincinnati took their two meetings by a combined 44 points. Over the previous three games, the Ravens won by no fewer than 24 points. If we finally get a competitive game, that works, too. Sign me up for Jackson and Joe Burrow trading blows well into the fourth quarter. However it unfolds, the winner might well emerge as the favorite to win the AFC North.

Doon: Bills at Ravens in Week 4. Jackson vs. Allen speaks for itself, but I’m curious to see how the Ravens’ defense handles Buffalo’s playmakers. It’s early enough in the season that cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters might not be fully up to speed after their injuries, which means wide receivers Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis and Jamison Crowder could take advantage. The Ravens need their pass rush and secondary to improve this season to compete with the top teams in the AFC, and this will be the first big test.

What’s a trap game the Ravens can’t afford to look past?

Walker: The Ravens will play a bunch of difficult games between the middle of September and the first weekend in November. The one opponent that looks like a pushover in that stretch? The New York Giants. Even after a celebrated draft, the Giants have a long way to go to revive one of the league’s dullest offenses. But it’s still a road trip sandwiched between divisional wars against the Bengals and Cleveland Browns. If complacency is to strike the Ravens, New Jersey will be the place.

Shaffer: How about the first game? Four months out from the Ravens’ opener against the New York Jets, we don’t know how many of the team’s rehabilitating starters will be available. We also don’t know whether Jackson will be tentative in his first meaningful action since his ankle injury, or how well defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald can make midgame adjustments, or even how good Zach Wilson will be in his second year as the Jets’ starting quarterback. If the Ravens lose in Week 1, they might not be favored again until Week 6.

Doon: At Jacksonville in Week 12. After this game, the Ravens host quarterback Russell Wilson and the Denver Broncos before embarking on a season-defining stretch of four AFC North matchups in five weeks. You think they might be looking ahead? The Ravens have clear advantages on paper, but if edger rusher Travon Walker and inside linebacker Devin Lloyd live up to their first-round billing and quarterback Trevor Lawrence takes a big step forward in Year 2 under Super Bowl-winning coach Doug Pederson, this is no gimme.

Which individual matchup are you most looking forward to?

Walker: There’s plenty of fun to be had with Allen, Brady and a relocated Russell Wilson on the schedule, but the answer has to be Jackson vs. Burrow. And it’s really Burrow vs. the Ravens’ pass defense. Cincinnati beat the Ravens by a combined score of 82-38 last year, with Burrow throwing for 941 yards over the two games. No quarterback has ever eviscerated the Ravens so thoroughly in a single season, and the Bengals grabbed the AFC North as a result. Can the Ravens turn the tide with a new defensive coordinator and a fortified secondary? Can Jackson, in turn, regain divisional quarterback supremacy? If they don’t come up with answers for Burrow, they could be in for a long decade.

Shaffer: Few on-field matchups are as fun to imagine as Tampa Bay’s Brady against the Ravens’ Kyle Hamilton. Brady, 44, will be more than twice as old as Hamilton, 21, when they meet in Week 8. The rookie safety from Notre Dame will have started, at most, seven NFL games. Brady’s won seven Super Bowls. The best quarterback Hamilton faced last year might have been Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, a third-round draft pick. Brady’s seen everything and studied everyone. Hamilton’s football IQ and range separate him from other elite safety prospects. Brady and Tampa Bay’s prolific downfield passing game will test both.

Doon: Jets defensive end Carl Lawson vs. Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley. Stanley will face better pass rushers this season, but this will be the first test for his surgically repaired left ankle since struggling in last year’s season opener against the Las Vegas Raiders. If Stanley can get back to his All-Pro level, that’d be a huge sigh of relief for the Ravens. Lawson himself is coming back from a torn Achilles tendon, which makes this an intriguing matchup of star players with something to prove.

What’s your way-too-early prediction on the Ravens’ record?

Walker: 11-6. They’ll be healthier, with their running game and pass defense restored to past strength, so a middle-of-the-road schedule will not keep them out of the playoffs.

Shaffer: 12-5. It’s impossible to know who on the Ravens’ schedule will actually be good, but we have a pretty good idea of the talent returning in Baltimore. If Jackson and the secondary bounce back this year, they’ll take care of business in the AFC North.

Doon: 12-5. In a loaded AFC, the Ravens aren’t getting their due. They have just the seventh-best Super Bowl odds in the conference despite having one of the best quarterbacks in the league and an ascending young roster. Not to mention, their schedule is the 11th easiest in the NFL based on projected win totals from Vegas oddsmakers. Assuming good health, they could be the surprise top seed in the AFC.

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