As the regular season inches closer, the jury on how the 2011-12 Baltimore Ravens will finish is starting to emerge.  The first edition of ESPN’s preseason power rankings have the Ravens at No. 9, which looks relatively accurate as it stands right now.  There’s no way of having a spot-on assessment of the team so far considering our only analysis of the team is from training camp.  Even the preseason games won’t give us much of an answer as to how the Ravens will fare in the regular season.  So all we can do right now is guess how they will do using the little bit of information we do have.

I think best case scenario for the Ravens this season is 11-5 and a playoff berth.  Worst case is 8-8, which in the AFC means they miss the postseason.  So naturally I think they finish somewhere in the middle of the best and worst cases, which puts them at 10-6 with a possible playoff berth.  They could easily win the division considering the Bengals and Browns will both probably be below .500 and the Steelers are susceptible to a mediocre season every few years.  But the Ravens outcome this year really falls on how effectively Joe Flacco can lead his young offense.

Flacco has already made it clear to his critics that he is “pretty damn good” and that he is going to let his play on the field speak for itself.  I praise Flacco for taking this step forward as a leader because two years ago he wouldn’t have said this, publicly at least.  It seems as if he is finally ready to build upon his three years of playoff experience and take his team the only place he hasn’t yet, which is the Super Bowl.  Flacco has statistically gotten better every season and in 2011 achieved career-highs in touchdowns (25), yards (3,622) and quarterback rating (93.6).  He also threw a career-low 10 interceptions.

But Flacco as an individual player is the least of my worries.  It’s his supporting cast on the offensive side of the ball that could cause the Ravens to fall in the worst-case scenario category.  Their experienced defense will keep their record respectable (.500 or above), but the inexperience at receiver and tight end and the uncertainty of the stability of their offensive line may keep them from finishing with double digit wins.  Uncertainty is the key word, though.

Matt Birk may not be ready for the season opener after undergoing knee surgery a few days ago, which means two undrafted rookies, Ryan Bartholomew and Tim Barnes, will be vying for the starting center spot.  Another rookie, Jah Reid, will most likely be starting at right tackle, which is another area of uncertainty.  The two tight ends, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, are both second-year players with minimal experience.  Dickson is extremely talented, but struggles with blocking at times.  Pitta isn’t nearly as talented as Dickson, but is a solid overall player with great hands and the ability to run-block effectively.

With the departure of veteran Derrick Mason, the receiving corps only has one player with any level of experience.  Anquan Boldin leads a group of young receivers including rookies Torrey Smith and Tanden Doss along with some other mostly unknown guys.  This is an area the Ravens may struggle with early in the season.  But they still have time to bring in someone like Jerricho Cotchery or Lee Evans to add some depth and experience to their receiving core.  If they do or not is yet to be seen.

The backfield looks strong after the additions of fullback Vonta Leach and running back Ricky Williams.  This is surely an upgrade from last season when Le’Ron McClain and Willis McGahee held the same positions.  The defense should be solid once again with most of the key players returning to anchor one of the consistently best units in the league.  The improved running game and tough defense should allow the Ravens to finish with a winning record and get them at least close to the playoffs.  And if they can learn how to close out games, something they struggled with last season, they will be in much better shape to make a lengthy playoff run.  But as they say, only time will tell.

Submitted by Steve Giles