IS A BALTIMORE BOUNCE-BACK A VALUE BET?

The Baltimore Ravens suffered through what amounted to a lost season in 2015. They struggled to a 5-11 record, easily the worst since head coach John Harbaugh arrived here in 2008. Injuries piled up early on defense, most notably to linebacker Terrell Suggs. And they hit the offense late, with the great wide receiver Steve Smith going out in midseason, running back Justin Forsett soon after that and finally quarterback Joe Flacco falling with six games to go.

The combination of the injuries and the excellent track record of this organization prior to last year has the market optimistic about the Ravens in 2016. Their Over/Under for wins is 8.5. And if you want to bet them to win a tough AFC North, the price is a modest (+325), not far off of Cincinnati (+200) and favorite Pittsburgh (+125). So, the question is whether last year was really just a fluke aberration or did it signal a deeper decline?

Optimists would point out that all of the injured players are either already in camp and practicing again (most notably Flacco) or are expected to be ready for the Week 1 opener at home against Buffalo. The opening schedule is manageable, with that Bills game followed by road trips to Cleveland and Jacksonville. It's entirely possible the Ravens could start the season 3-0 and have a quarter of their road schedule behind them, all the while with the vets working the kinks out.

The pessimistic view has no lack of supporting evidence. We could start by pointing out that Suggs (33), Dumervil (32) and Smith (37) are at the age where it's far from reasonable to simply assume they'll return to full health with no further injuries. This is particularly true of Smith, who suffered an Achilles injury and if he's not healthy, the Ravens have a notable lack of depth at receiver.

It's further worth pointing out that injuries didn't ruin Flacco's last year. His injury rescued him from what was a mistake-prone year to begin with. Flacco's TD-INT ratio was a poor 14/12 and the fact is that he's simply not performed up to the huge contract he got after this team's 2012 run to a Super  Bowl title. Flacco's critics felt he was a supporting piece while long-gone veterans like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were the real heart and soul of the Super Bowl championship and that view has been supported by what's happened in the ensuing years.

Other question marks involve the offensive line. Marshall Yanda is terrific at guard, but everywhere else is up in the air. If rookie left tackle Ronnie Stanley comes through, it will go a long way toward bringing Baltimore back. On defense, the Ravens have to see third-year linebacker C.J. Moseley bounce back after a disappointing sophomore season.

So where does the truth lie with the 2016 Baltimore Ravens. The case for a revival is strong - this is a league where the quality of coaching and the organization carries a bigger importance than a position-by-position breakdown in August and the Ravens are of high quality. For that reason alone they deserve the benefit of the doubt.

The problem for football bettors is that the market has already granted Baltimore that benefit of the doubt, in placing them in a class with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the division race. If the Ravens were available as a dark horse, we'd be interested. But given that a bounceback is far from a sure thing, we have to be cautious for the time being.

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