Billick likes Ravens schedule

OWINGS MILLS – An immediate benchmark to the Baltimore Ravens' competitiveness within the AFC North is offered within an upcoming season expected to be the final one for owner Art Modell. Besides the Ravens beginning and ending the season against the defending division champion Pittsburgh Steelers, national television exposure, three trips to the West Coast and several connections to ties from the past accompany the schedule officially released by the league on Thursday.

The Ravens' season begins on Sept. 7 against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, the same venue where their 7-9 season ended last year on a Jeff Blake interception.

 Baltimore's regular-season finale is at home against Pittsburgh on Dec. 28 in the second of two Sunday night games to be broadcast on ESPN.

Sandwiched between the Pittsburgh opener and finale are games against the Cleveland Browns, who edged out the Ravens for a wild-card berth last year. The first home game at Ravens Stadium is set for Sept. 14 against the Browns.

"That's the way it ought to be," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, who labeled the Steelers as the likely frontrunner to claim the division title for a third year in a row. "With the tight games that we've played with them to finish the season with a young team learning along the way, we're going to turn around and see how far we've come, which is exciting to me."

The Ravens have no Monday night appearances, but play another ESPN game on Nov. 7 at the St. Louis Rams.

Billick and Modell expressed disappointment about the absence of a home Monday night game after last season's upset victory over the Denver Broncos. Billick noted that Baltimore didn't have a Monday night game during its Super Bowl campaign.

"The NFL officials who put together the schedules have a tough job," said Modell, who is expected to sell his majority ownership to Steve Bisciotti next January, "and they can't please everyone."

Additionally, the Ravens have a series of reunions with former players and defensive coordinators.

First, the Ravens host popular former running back Priest Holmes and the Kansas City Chiefs on Sept. 28. Then, the Ravens face off against Blake, last year's starting quarterback, on Oct. 12 against the Arizona Cardinals. Blake departed the Ravens last month after they withdrew a contract offer to him when he elected to test the free agent market.

"How about that?" Billick quipped when the irony of facing Blake was mentioned. "We'll see if he's the starting quarterback there when we get down there. He's down there to supposedly compete, so I would imagine he would be."

Plus, the Ravens play twice against former defensive coordinator and Finksburg resident Marvin Lewis' Cincinnati Bengals along with a Nov. 2 meeting in Baltimore with former defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio's Jacksonville Jaguars.

"It's always exciting to compete against guys you've worked with before," Billick said. "I doubt there's any team we play that there's not somebody that has a certain familiarity."

Although the Ravens travel extensively with trips to San Diego, Arizona and Oakland, those trips are spaced out between September, October and December, respectively.

There are also the logistical concerns of heading to South Florida to play the Miami Dolphins on Nov. 16 directly after the Rams' contest.

And Baltimore has been presented with the challenge of facing four playoff teams from last year, including the Super Bowl runner-up Raiders and the NFC West champion San Francisco 49ers.

"You better be good on both sides of the ball or you're not going to win," Billick said. "There are a lot of good teams on this schedule."

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