The Ravens were rewarded with the national spotlight as well as another formidable journey.
The NFL yesterday released the reigning Super Bowl champion's 16-game schedule, which is highlighted by three "Monday Night Football" appearances and defined by a grueling early stretch.
The Ravens open the defense of their title on Sept. 9, when they play the Chicago Bears at PSINet Stadium, and then make the 5-year-old franchise's Monday night debut on Sept. 17 at home against the Minnesota Vikings.
After those two home games, the Ravens hit the season's biggest hurdle - a string in which they play six of their next eight games on the road including stops at Denver, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Tennessee. The Ravens wrap up this part of the schedule at the Titans on Nov. 12, their second Monday night appearance of the season.
But instead of complaining about that challenging stretch, the Ravens rested upon some recent history. It was only last season when the Ravens started 5-2 despite playing five of seven on the road.
"We've been there, done that," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Our team knows how to win under those circumstances."
The Ravens continue the second half of their schedule at home against the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 18 and travel to the Jacksonville Jaguars the following week before heading into a favorable home stretch.
In a similar finish to last season, the Ravens stay at home for most of December. They play host to the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 2, receive a bye in Week 14 and round out their regular-season home schedule against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals.
The season finale is at Tampa Bay - the site of the Ravens' Super Bowl victory - in a "Monday Night Football" game of sorts. Their first-ever contest against the Buccaneers, which should carry playoff implications, will actually be played on Saturday, Dec. 29 because Monday night is New Year's Eve.
In total, the Ravens have six games against playoff teams, with three coming in the first five weeks. The Ravens' six nondivisional opponents had a combined 56-40 record (.583) last season.
"Part of the challenge of being the defending champion is adjusting to a tougher schedule with different routines," Billick said. "I like opening at home with our fans helping us off to a good start. There are tough stretches, particularly in November. I do like finishing with three of four at PSINet, especially with two AFC Central teams here in December."
The Ravens were extremely pleased about attaining some long sought-after national exposure. In addition to the three Monday night appearances, the Ravens will be featured nationally at Denver on CBS and home against Pittsburgh on ESPN.
Although the Ravens will be showcased in five nationally televised games, it could be construed that the league snubbed the Ravens by bumping them into the second Monday night game of the season. The Denver Broncos will open their new stadium against the New York Giants in the season's first Monday night game.
The Ravens are the first Super Bowl champions since the 1995 San Francisco 49ers to not kick off the next season on Monday night. In fact, nine of the past 11 league champions opened on Monday night.
"I attach no significance to the fact that we're first or second," Ravens owner Art Modell said. "It's not a slight in the slightest. The more important fact is that we're playing five out of 16 on national television. That's recognition enough."
Said Billick: "Our guys were so adamant last season about not getting the respect they deserve. Now, they have to live up to that."
NOTES: The specific dates for the Ravens' preseason schedule will be announced later. The team is slated to play the Carolina Panthers and New York Giants at PSINet and travel to the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Jets. ... Baltimore has not had a team play on Monday night since Nov. 6, 1978, when the Colts beat the Washington Redskins, 21-17, at Memorial Stadium. ... Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis will be honored in Lakeland, Fla., on Saturday. His hometown has named April 14 as "Ray Lewis Day" and will celebrate with a parade and the retiring of Lewis' high school jersey No. 22. ... Billick was in Bristol, Conn., yesterday filming a promotional commercial for ESPN. The storyline involves the network looking to grow grass inside its studio and features Billick, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez and turf consultant George Toma.