Baltimore Ravens 2021 Preview: Can They Beat the Best?

 

Football is just around the corner, Baltimore Ravens fans! The first game of the preseason is today, marking the first of at least 21 weeks we’ll be able to watch the Ravens play.

Last year, the Ravens struggled in seemingly every way after entering the season with Super Bowl aspirations. The passing game, rumored to be improved, fell flat all year and cost the team in the playoffs – again. The team also struggled through a massive Covid-19 outbreak and ultimately played a game with a depleted roster. There were important injuries, miscommunication on the field, and several other problems. Despite an 11-5 record and a playoff win, the season was a disappointment.

This year cause for optimism, however. The team has invested heavily in the problem areas from last year. The wide receiver and edge rusher rooms both received multiple picks in this year’s draft. They also received free agent help with the signings of Sammy Watkins and Justin Houston. Notably, the addition of respected receiver coaches Tee Martin and Keith Williams means, for the first time in franchise history, there’s optimism that our young receivers will develop. Ronnie Stanley‘s return, Kevin Zeitler‘s signing, and the drafting of Ben Cleveland could lead to a much-improved offensive line. The rest of the roster features young players on the rise as well. Will that be enough for the Baltimore Ravens to make a Super Bowl appearance, though? To get to the final dance, the Ravens will have to take on a loaded AFC conference.

Stacking Up Against the Best

The AFC has rapidly turned into a conference of heavyweight contenders all vying for the throne. Teams like the Bills, Browns, and Chiefs are all preseason favorites to make deep playoff runs. Other units, such as the Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts, could also impress. How do the Ravens stack up against those teams?

Kansas City Chiefs

It’s no secret the Kansas City Chiefs are the cream of the AFC crop. They’ve represented the conference in the past two Super Bowls and show no signs of slowing down. In particular, they seem to have the Ravens’ number in their head-to-head matchups. Lamar Jackson has yet to defeat the Chiefs in his young career.

The Chiefs roster needs little introduction; a high-powered offense led by Patrick Mahomes and a fast, aggressive defense. Both units are fantasically well-coached and both can make game-changing plays on any snap.

To beat the Chiefs, the Ravens will have to copy the performance of the Tampa Bay Buccanneers in last year’s Super Bowl. They will have to pressure Mahomes without blitzing and play sound, aggressive defense in the back seven. Meanwhile, their offense must be explosive in its own right, capable of moving the ball consistently through the air.

To their credit, the Ravens have tried to improve in both areas. Odafe Oweh and Justin Houston could greatly improve the pass rush, while Rashod Bateman and Sammy Watkins could do the same for the passing offense. Unfortunately, the Chiefs have spent every resource they could this offseason to prevent last year’s Super Bowl from happening again. An objective analysis of the matchup still favors the Chiefs until proven otherwise.

Buffalo Bills/Cleveland Browns

The Bills, along with the Browns, are this year’s up-and-coming AFC powerhouses. They both boast complete rosters with minimal weaknesses to exploit. Notably, the Bills handed the Ravens their playoff loss last year, while the Browns pushed the Ravens to the brink in an instant classic in week 14.

However, I don’t think the Bills or Browns present quite the same problem a team like the Chiefs does. Even though the Ravens lost to the Bills in the playoffs, much of the game was marked by the Ravens’ maddening inconsistency that covered up an overall even affair. Most promising is that the Ravens managed to mostly contain an explosive Bills offense. It was a game the Ravens could have won if they played at their usual level.

With that said, the Bills are an incredibly dangerous opponent. Josh Allen looks like the real deal and their defense likely will improve from last season thanks to the progression of young talent. I see this matchup as a toss-up, but if push came to shove, I would favor the Bills until the Ravens prove they have a decent passing attack.

Meanwhile, the Browns showed they could hang with the Ravens last year and have only gotten better in the offseason. New addition Jadeveon Clowney is a game wrecker versus the run and the offense is fully gelled to start the year. On paper, this is a team that can beat just about anyone – the only thing left to do is prove it once and for all. I think the Baltimore Ravens still have the slight edge here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the two teams traded games.

Other Contenders

While new teams unexpectedly rise to prominence every NFL season, the likely other contenders in the division are the Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, and Indianapolis Colts.

The Dolphins are the most likely of the “other” teams to become a major power in the AFC. They have a young QB with plenty of room to grow in Tua Tagovailoa, a first-round wide receiver already turning heads in Jaylen Waddle, and a talented defense already among the NFL’s best. Right now, I would take the Baltimore Ravens over the Miami Dolphins in a hard-fought, defensive game. If Tua matures and makes the offense more explosive, the Dolphins instantly become of the best teams in the league.

 

The Colts are even harder to project. They have a very good defense, a talented running back, and one of the best offensive lines in the game. Like the Ravens, their only real question mark is with their passing game. Is the receiver room good enough? Is Carson Wentz a good QB? The Colts must show us some answers to these questions before we can reliably make any claims about them. Assuming Wentz is who we’ve seen the last three years, the Colts are a middling team that probably won’t make the playoffs. If he looks like 2017 Wentz, however, the Colts will challenge for a Super Bowl appearance.

Finally, the Tennessee Titans. The bad blood between the Baltimore Ravens and Titans has existed for two decades at this point, dating back to the days of Eddie George and Ray Lewis. The Titans unexpectedly dominated the Ravens in the 2019 playoffs, marking a horrible end to a storybook season for the Ravens. Last year, the Ravens returned the favor, coming away with a close but decisive victory in the Wild Card round. Both teams spent time on each others’ logos, only furthering the rivalry. The Titans have many defensive question marks, but adding Julio Jones to their offense is downright unfair. Jones plus Derrick Henry, AJ Brown, and Ryan Tannehill is probably the most explosive quartet in the game. I believe the Ravens are a slightly better team, but I also believe the Titans can beat anybody they play.

In Conclusion…

The Ravens are one of the best teams in the AFC on paper. If the changes they’ve made in the offseason bear fruit, a Super Bowl appearance is possible.

However, the team has shown a level of inconsistency that warrants caution for fans. Objectively, they still have much to prove to make before being seen as AFC Championship contenders. While they’ve clearly made attempts at those improvements, we can’t just assume the problems are gone.

My final prediction is a 12-5 record and a divisional-round exit against the Chiefs. Ideally, the Ravens’ passing attack improves enough to finally surpass the Chiefs as the best AFC team. If things go poorly, however, the Ravens will struggle just to make it to the playoffs.

Follow Pro Football Press for more NFL and Team Coverage!

NFL Preview and Predictions, NFC

As the 2021 NFL season approaches, let’s take a look at the NFC and the outlook for its divisions and teams:

NFC East:

Dallas Cowboys

Outlook: Playoff contender

Division Prediction: 1st

Record Prediction: 11-6

The Dallas Cowboys are going to be an extremely potent offense in 2021 with the return of Dak Prescott. This will be compounded by the existing spoils of offensive weapons in Dallas including Ceedee Lamb, Amari Cooper, and Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys will benefit from a relatively weak NFC East which will be coupled with the second easiest schedule in the NFL. These factors should lead to an exorbitant win total, however, a defense that was lackluster in 2020 didn’t appear to get any better. A division win for the Cowboys is in store nonetheless.

Washington Football Team

Outlook: Wild Card Contender

Division Prediction: 2nd

Record Prediction: 9-8

The 2021 Washington Football Team bolsters a defense that can compete with any in the NFL. In 2020, Washington reached the playoffs mostly because of a tattered NFC East and is looking to build on that. However, it is unlikely that they do much to build on their 2020 campaign in terms of the end product. The team will endure clearly the toughest schedule in their division ranked 15th. The next closest team (the New York Giants) having the 25th toughest. The offense in Washington did not make any huge strides either, however, Ryan Fitzpatrick replacing Alex Smith under center is some help. The offense will rely on the continued progression of Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson to support their stellar defense. Washington will be a team that no offensive coordinator likes to play, however, that will not be enough to see a true breakout season.

New York Giants

Outlook: Mediocrity

Division Prediction: 3rd

Record Prediction: 7-10

The 2021 New York Giants will enter the season hedging their success entirely on the offensive upside. Joe Judge’s team will be pinning their hopes on the progression of signal-caller Daniel Jones and the health of running back Saquon Barkley. The team’s addition of Kenny Golladay at wide receiver will surely help their fortunes, however, he is not an elite talent that will offset a relative shortcoming in the Giants’ pass-catching room. There is a lot that must go right for the Giants to contend, and they are just not there yet.

Philadelphia Eagles

Outlook: Entering rebuild

Division prediction: 4th

Record Prediction: 4-13

The Philadelphia Eagles are in a transition period, and they know it. The majority of the team that won the super bowl three years ago is either off the books or in the twilight of their career. Any hope for the team’s expeditious success rides on sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts. Hurts showed flashes on the backstretch of the 2020 season when called upon, but it is nothing more than a hope for the Eagles that he takes flight in 2021. Philadelphia does have the easiest schedule in the NFL heading into the season, so there is some upside.

NFC North:

Green Bay Packers

Outlook: Super Bowl Threat

Division Prediction: 1st

Record Prediction: 12-5

The Green Bay Packers have one last shot at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in the near future. The reigning NFL MVP and all-time great quarterback Aaron Rodgers has committed to one more year in Green Bay before parting ways with the organization. The team returns nearly all its stars and looks to dominate again. Green Bay has concerns about weakened protection, losing perhaps the best center in the league, and David Bakhtiari recovering from an ACL tear. The Packers also will endure a top-five toughest schedule, but that is the case for both Minnesota and Chicago as well.

Minnesota Vikings

Outlook: Playoff Team

Division Prediction: 2nd

Record Prediction: 10-7

The Minnesota Vikings are poised to post a bounce-back campaign after a disappointing and injury-riddled 2020. The team will regain two-time all-pro pass rusher Danielle Hunter along with Michael Pierce, Eric Kendricks, and Anthony Barr that missed all or a significant portion of the year previous. Minnesota also added Breshaud Breeland and Patrick Peterson to a struggling cornerback room while drafting their potential franchise left tackle in Christian Darrisaw. The team also added Dalvin Tomlinson to a rejuvenated defensive interior. Minnesota does have to bear the fourth-toughest schedule in 2021, however, the defensive renovation and plethora of offensive weapons spearheaded by Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook with Kirk Cousins under center will lead them back to the postseason.

Chicago Bears

Outlook: Not Enough

Division Prediction: 3rd

Record Prediction: 8-9

The Chicago Bears have all their eggs in the Justin Fields basket in 2021 and beyond. The sooner that Fields plays the quicker Chicago knows where they are as a franchise and perhaps compete. Chicago failed to add much of anything in the offseason, the highlights being projected depth running back Damien Williams along with Desmond Trufant replacing Kyle Fuller at cornerback. They likely won’t improve on last season with a tough schedule and a resurgent Minnesota. Chicago could have a bright future if Fields is the real deal, but 2021 won’t be that breakout season.

Detroit Lions

Outlook: Rome wasn’t built in a day

Division Prediction: 4th

Record Prediction: 2-15

The Detroit Lions are beginning a complete and total rebuild. The organization traded franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford and Kenny Golladay is now in New York. New General Manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell plan to endure a tough road ahead. Expect Detroit to pick in the top three in the 2022 NFL draft.

NFC South:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Outlook: Super Bowl Threat

Division Prediction: 1st

Record Prediction: 14-3

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are entering the 2o21 season as the reigning Super Bowl champions. The team did something that is rarely possible, they retain essentially the same roster that captured the Lombardi Trophy. Tampa Bay will enjoy another stellar season led by Tom Brady and Bruce Arians. Expect the Buccaneers to challenge for a repeat title.

New Orleans Saints

Outlook: Wild Card Contender

Division Prediction: 2nd

Record Prediction: 8-9

The New Orleans Saints are entering a new era post-Drew Brees. The Saints are going to go forward with Jameis Winston while retaining most of the team. Winston is going to make mistakes that Brees did not, and there is much speculation around trading star-wideout Michael Thomas. New Orleans will regress without Brees, however, the team’s roster will keep them somewhat afloat.

Carolina Panthers

Outlook: Volatile

Division Prediction: 3rd

Record Prediction: 7-10

The Carolina Panthers have a very good roster and a coach that appears capable in Matt Rhule. The team will return all-pro running back Christian McCaffrey from injury. The young core including Brian Burns, Jeremy Chinn, and Donte Jackson will surely take progressive steps. However, Sam Darnold at quarterback is a huge question mark and it is unlikely Darnold takes the team to playoff contention. The Panthers will both look amazing and awful at different times this season.

Atlanta Falcons

Outlook: Mediocrity

Division Prediction: 4th

Record Prediction: 6-11

The Atlanta Falcons are coming off a 4-12 season in 2020, however, it is unlikely they will be that bad again. The team did lose all-pro wide receiver Julio Jones, however, the team brought in a generationally talented pass catcher in the draft in Kyle Pitts. The Falcons defense is still very lackluster and Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley, and the aforementioned Pitts will not be enough to output success in Atlanta.

NFC West:

Los Angeles Rams

Outlook: Super Bowl Threat

Division Prediction: 1st

Record Prediction: 11-6

The Los Angeles Rams have one of the best rosters in football. The team bolsters perhaps the most dominant corner in the league Jalen Ramsey and the league’s most dominant defender Aaron Donald. Add that to a solid surrounding defensive unit, a great pass-catching room, and one of the league’s best offensive minds Sean McVay on the sideline, the Rams are terrifying. On top of all of this though, they added star quarterback Matthew Stafford who very well could lead them to the promised land. Their record may seem conservative juxtaposed with the writeup, however, the NFC West is the league’s best division, and playing Arizona, Seattle, and San Francisco six times combined is a tough test.

Seattle Seahawks

Outlook: Playoff Team+

Division Prediction: 2nd

Record Prediction: 10-7

The Seattle Seahawks are coming off a season where they posted a 12-4 record. Seattle will regress from this but will still be a very dangerous team. The team will have Russell Wilson throwing to an even more progressed DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett with Chris Carson in the backfield. The defense will be serviceable and Pete Carroll’s team is poised for a great season. The Seahawks will be very dangerous in 2021.

Arizona Cardinals

Outlook: Wild Card

Division Prediction: 3rd

Record Prediction: 9-8

The Cardinals retain a high-powered offense spearheaded by Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins, however, the defense is a question mark. The defense lost legendary cornerback Patrick Peterson and may well lose Chandler Jones. The addition of JJ Watt is extremely positive, however, the unit itself is still a bit mediocre. On top of this, Kliff Kingsbury is likely not the guy going forward and with a resurgent Rams under Sean McVay in this tough division, Arizona’s ceiling is capped.

San Francisco 49ers

Outlook: Near miss

Division Prediction: 4th

Record Prediction: 8-9

The San Francisco 49ers will be victims of a division that is just entirely too good. Kyle Shanahan will have his hands full attempting to navigate a loaded division while having clearly its worst quarterback. Whether it is Jimmy Garoppolo or rookie Trey Lance, the 49ers quarterback will be miles behind the likes of Wilson, Murray, and Stafford. The team will retain a very talented defense but the lack of an elite quarterback and weapons while in a brutal division are going to hinder San Francisco. However, any team in this division could make a playoff run so don’t count Kyle Shanahan out.

Wild Card Teams:

Minnesota Vikings (10-7)

Seattle Seahawks (10-7)

Arizona Cardinals (9-8)

OJ Howard – Plank or Plunder?

OJ Howard at practice.
Photo credit: Kyle Zedaker/Tampa Bay Buccaneers

“The most important ability is availability.” – Bill Parcells

From a first-round steal to Super Bowl LV absentee, OJ Howard and his pro career have gotten off to an inconsistent start; so inconsistent that he may not even remain a Buccaneer after 2021. Many thought OJ would step in and become the Bucs’ clear number two passing option. A day later, the Buccaneers would select combine standout Chris Godwin in the third round. As they walked off the NFL Draft stage, their career outlooks seemed very different.

Flash forward four seasons, and Chris Godwin has become an NFL star and a dynamic number two receiver. OJ, even after all this time, remains an unknown quantity. A big part of this has to do with the old trusty Bill Parcells quote about availability, and how it’s the most important ability. OJ has been snakebit with injury for a large portion of his pro career so far. Chris Godwin, on the other hand, sustained multiple injuries in one year for the first time in his professional career last year. However, even after undergoing surgery following a finger fracture suffered during a touchdown catch against the Raiders, Godwin was only sidelined for a single game. At wide receiver.

This isn’t to suggest Howard should simply play through an Achilles tear, but this may be OJ Howard’s last chance to prove he can play all 16 games. 2021 represents OJ’s fifth-year extension, and unrestricted free agency is on the horizon. Through four seasons, OJ has only played in 66% of the Buccaneers’ total regular-season games. This means Howard’s career missed-game percentage is lower than Godwin’s single worst season as a pro.

Sorry OJ Howard, there’s only so much to go around.

OJ Howard still has the potential to be a Travis Kelce-level TE in the NFL. The only things keeping Howard from maximizing his potential are the five separate foot/leg injuries he’s sustained since entering the league. Even if these injuries haven’t had a cumulative effect on OJ’s body and future career output, they have drastically affected his availability. If OJ stays healthy and has a tremendous year there will be some real difficult talks come contract time. Top-end TE’s are expensive, and it would be difficult to justify those payments at OJ’s current level of production. Unless OJ sees a tremendous increase in usage and production he’ll remain the Bucs’ fourth target. A team with cap space to spare could covet an offensive threat like OJ and try to feature him in their offense, and Tampa may not have the cap space to keep up.

This doesn’t mean that there’s zero chance Godwin and Howard reunite in 2022, but it sure seems close to zero. The Buccaneers do have $22 million in cap space already freed up for next year, which is good news. They also have waaaaaaay too many players than they can afford to sign with that money becoming free agents next year, which is bad.

Just glancing over the list of free agents, it is unlikely that they deal with OJ before Chris Godwin or Carlton Davis. Ryan Jensen and JPP are both older than OJ, but letting either one of them walk drastically affects their respective units more than letting OJ walk would.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is the NFL is a cutthroat business. Unless OJ Howard proves he can be productive across 16 healthy games, he may be more likely to find a plank than plunder next offseason.

Follow Pro Football Press for more team coverage and NFL content.