The Ravens believe they are on the verge of making the NFL playoffs, and by the midpoint of the 1998 season, they should have a pretty good idea about the validity of those projections.
The regular-season schedule released yesterday by the NFL shows the Ravens will be tested early and often, particularly by their AFC Central Division rivals.
The team will christen its new stadium at Camden Yards at 1: 01 p.m. on Sept. 6 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the reigning divisional champions who have beaten the Ravens in three of their four meetings.
Two weeks later on the road, the Ravens will get another crack at another nemesis in the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team the franchise has yet to beat in four attempts. And the divisional foes just keep on coming. By the year's eighth game -- a home game against Jacksonville on Nov. 1 -- the Ravens will have played an AFC Central team six times and will be done with the Jaguars and the Steelers.
"We're going to have to be ready and be ready early," Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said. "The big thing is, six out of our first eight games are divisional games, and five of our first eight are against playoff teams. We've started well in two straight years, now we have to sustain it."
The Ravens started at 2-2 in their inaugural 1996 season, then broke out to a 3-1 start last year. They faded to finish in last place in both seasons.
Team owner Art Modell, who points to such recent additions as quarterback Jim Harbaugh, running back Errict Rhett, fullback Roosevelt Potts and cornerback Rod Woodson as reasons to believe the Ravens will be a playoff contender after last year's 6-9-1 finish, was pleased with the schedule -- especially the opener.
"For our historical opener, we're hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers, and I couldn't think of a more appropriate setting for such a big game," Modell said. "I'm pretty happy about Sept. 6. That is going to be an outrageously beautiful day for Baltimore. I like playing Pittsburgh early, and we'll be in our new home."
Modell also likes the fact that the Ravens get to show off their new digs on national television. In their second home game, being televised on ESPN, they will face Cincinnati on Sunday night, Sept. 27.
Then, there's the other hot attraction -- the long-awaited return of the Colts. On Nov. 29, three days after Thanksgiving, the Ravens will play host to Indianapolis.
Two years ago, the Ravens traveled to Indianapolis and lost, 26-21.
"The fans here have always wanted a piece of the Colts, and that should be a great holiday for them," Modell said.
Among the more notable road dates, the Ravens travel to Lambeau Field to face Green Bay on Oct. 25. The Packers are 14 months removed from a Super Bowl crown and are two-time defending NFC champions.
If the Ravens survive the first half of the season in decent shape, they should be in position to make a strong run at a playoff berth. Only two of their second-half opponents, Minnesota and Detroit, had winning records in 1997. Both were 9-7.
The Lions, featuring the remarkable Barry Sanders, visit Camden Yards for the Dec. 27 regular-season finale.
NOTES: Three weeks into the team's off-season conditioning program, 45 players have reported to the team's Owings Mills facility. Defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, middle linebacker Ray Lewis and running back Errict Rhett are expected here by next week. At this time last year, the Ravens only had 32 players under contract. The Ravens will conduct a rookie minicamp from April 24-26, then will follow up with a two-week, full-roster minicamp beginning June 1. The Ravens will hold their first-ever Fantasy Camp, April 30 through May 3, at the team's Owings Mills facility. Adults age 25 and over will have the chance to play non-contact football with Ravens like quarterback Eric Zeier, defensive lineman Larry Webster and wide receiver Jermaine Lewis, as well as former Baltimore Colts such as running back Tom Matte and safety Bruce Laird. For information call 800-561-9099.
Ravens 1998 schedule Date Opp., Time, TV
9/6 Pitt., 1: 01, 13
9/13 at Jets, 1: 01, 13
9/20 at Jack., 4: 15, 13
9/27 Cinn., 8: 20, ESPN
10/11 Tenn., 1: 01, 13
10/18 at Pitt., 1: 01, 13
10/25 at G. Bay, 1: 01, 13
11/1 Jack., 1: 01, 13
11/8 Oak., 1: 01, 13
11/15 at S.D., 4: 05, 13
11/22 at Cinn., 4: 15, 13
11/29 Ind., 1: 01, 13
12/6 at Tenn., 4: 15, 13
12/13 Minn., 4: 15, 45
12/20 at Chi., 1: 01, 13
12/27 Det., 1: 01, 45
Pub Date: 4/03/98