The Baltimore Ravens' focus heading into this season is to win the AFC North for the first time since 2012 and position themselves for what have been rare home playoff games. The key for the Ravens is getting past the toughest start to any Ravens schedule in 15 years. Baltimore plays five of its first seven games on the road, which includes four out West and one Thursday night trip at the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens then finish with six of their last nine at home, including three of the final four games at M&T Bank Stadium. I had the Ravens going 9-7 when I made the game-by-game predictions in April. Since that time, a strong draft and the addition of nickelback Kyle Arrington improves the Ravens' projection to 11-5.
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 13, at Denver, 4:25 p.m.
The Ravens have a much better secondary than the last time they opened the season in the Mile High City. It was two years ago that Peyton Manning humbled the defending Super Bowl champions by tying an NFL record with seven touchdown passes. This just isn’t the time to play Manning, who has won a league-best 75 percent of his games in September since 2007 (18-6 record). In comparison, Joe Flacco has lost his last two openers, throwing three touchdowns and three interceptions (70.2 passer rating). Broncos 27, Ravens 17. Record: 0-1.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 20, at Oakland, 4:05 p.m.
The Ravens are staying out on the West Coast, so there is no cross-country flight to Oakland. Baltimore should feel quite at home against the Raiders, especially this time of the year. Oakland is 2-10 in September games since 2012. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-11) are worse in the first month of the regular season in that span. And Jack Del Rio can't fix the NFL's worst-scoring defense this quickly. Ravens 30, Raiders 20. Record: 1-1.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 27, vs. Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
It will be a festive atmosphere in Baltimore, where the Ravens return home after spending the first two weeks out west. The Ravens are 6-1 in home openers under coach John Harbaugh. Their average margin of victory is 15.8 points. It's been a similar trend of dominance with Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. In four career starts in Baltimore, Dalton has thrown seven interceptions and has been sacked 11 times. Ravens 24, Bengals 21. Record: 2-1.
Week 4: Thursday, Oct. 1, at Pittsburgh, 8:25 p.m.
If the schedule-makers didn't make it rough enough early, Baltimore plays its biggest rival on the road on a shortened week. The Steelers have had to play a couple of Thursday night games in Baltimore, so it's only fair the Ravens have to do the same. Why is this significant? The Ravens have never won a Thursday night game on the road (0-3 record). This is also the second game back from suspension for Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell, who has more total yards against the Ravens (400) than anyone else since 2013. Steelers 31, Ravens 27. Record: 2-2.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 11, vs. Cleveland, 1 p.m.
The quarterbacks change in Cleveland, but the Browns' luck never does in Baltimore. Under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 7-0 against the Browns at M&T Bank Stadium. It's a struggle for Cleveland to put up double-digit points, much less win the game. The Browns have averaged 10.8 points in Baltimore since their last win in 2007. Ravens 28, Browns 10. Record: 3-2.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 18, at San Francisco, 4:25 p.m.
There won't be a Harbaugh family reunion this time, and it won't be much of a rematch from the Super Bowl 30 months ago. There will be some sentiment in this game because this will be Baltimore's first against its Super Bowl receivers, Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. But Colin Kaepernick still has to get them the ball. Ravens 17, 49ers 10. Record: 4-2.
Week 7: Monday, Oct. 26 at Arizona, 8:30 p.m.
This game hinges on the starting quarterback for Arizona. With Carson Palmer last season, the Cardinals were 8-1. Without him, Arizona was 3-4. The challenge is for a marginal Cardinals offensive line to keep Palmer healthy and upright. No quarterback has beaten Baltimore more than Palmer (nine wins) since 2003. Cardinals 21, Ravens 13. Record: 4-3.
Week 8: Sunday, Nov. 1, vs. San Diego, 1 p.m.
Any advantage of the Chargers traveling cross-country is negated by the Ravens' long flight after a Monday night game. What makes it worse is the Ravens face a quarterback who has always had a knack for beating them. Philip Rivers topped the Ravens on their home turf last season with a touchdown pass with 38 seconds remaining, and his 101.8 career passer rating against the Ravens ranks third behind Kurt Warner (137.5) and Peyton Manning (120.1). Chargers 31, Ravens 28. Record: 4-4.
Week 9: Bye
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 15, vs. Jacksonville, 1 p.m.
The Ravens have won six in a row over Jacksonville in Baltimore, and they're coming off the bye. But coach Gus Bradley has the ability to turn around the Jaguars, and quarterback Blake Bortles made strides this preseason. The Ravens will win because they're clearly the more talented team. It just won't be as easy as many will predict. Ravens 24, Jaguars 20. Record: 5-4.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 22, vs. St. Louis, 1 p.m.
The Rams are an underrated team, and you can never count out a Jeff Fisher-coached group. But new quarterback Nick Foles won't look like the Nick Foles from Philadelphia, where he had LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin around him. In St. Louis, Foles is surrounded by the NFL's 28th-ranked offense. Ravens 16, Rams 6. Record: 6-4.
Week 12: Monday, No. 30, at Cleveland, 8:30 p.m.
By this time in the season, will it be Josh McCown at quarterback for the Browns? Johnny Manziel? Spergon Wynn? The Ravens continue their late-November roll and dominance in Cleveland, where no team has a better record than Baltimore (6-1) since 2008. Ravens 24, Browns 13. Record: 7-4.
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 6, at Miami, 1 p.m.
The Ravens have won as much as the Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. The problem this time is the Ravens are going on the road after a Monday night game against a division team. That's the scheduling equivalent of a Ndamukong Suh stomp to the head. Dolphins 22, Ravens 17. Record: 7-5.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 13, vs. Seattle, 8:30 p.m.
Going to back-to-back Super Bowls -- longer seasons and shorter offseasons -- is finally going to take its toll. Russell Wilson and the Seahawks' offense have struggled this preseason, and the defense is dealing with the holdout of safety Kam Chancellor. Plus, the Ravens are 11-5 (.688) at home in December. Ravens 26, Seahawks 20. Record: 8-5.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 20, vs. Kansas City, 1 p.m.
The Chiefs rely on Jamaal Charles to win games, and the Ravens have done a remarkably good job at quieting him and/or knocking him out of games. Charles has only averaged 4.2 yards per carry in his career against Baltimore, with more fumbles (one) than touchdowns (none). Ravens 24, Chiefs 20. Record: 9-5.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 27, vs. Pittsburgh, 8:30 p.m.
The Ravens haven’t lost to Ben Roethlisberger at home since 2010. The Baltimore defense often uses Big Ben as a pinata, breaking his nose and delivering hits (such as the Courtney Upshaw one last season) that flatten him to the M&T Bank Stadium turf. The rivalry should come with a parental advisory. Ravens 35, Steelers 27. Record: 10-5.
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 3, at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
This has the makings of an underwhelming season for a Bengals team that has made a habit of reaching the playoffs recently. Quarterback Andy Dalton needs a strong supporting cast, and Cincinnati did nothing to improve the targets around him. Flacco has struggled mightily at Paul Brown Stadium over the years (five touchdowns and 11 interceptions in seven games there). But this regular-season finale will mean more to the Ravens than to the Bengals. Ravens 20, Bengals 14. Record: 11-5.