2018 NFL Bold Predictions: Baltimore Ravens will topple Steelers, win the AFC North

For two magical months in the middle of the winter, Joe Flacco blacked out, morphed into Joe Montana and caught so much fire during the NFL playoffs he was able to give Ray Lewis the parting gift of walking away from Hall of Fame careers as a Super Bowl champion. (It should have happened for Ed Reed too, and still can if you're willing to forget that season with the Texans and Jets.) It doesn't feel like it was that long ago, but suddenly we're in the sixth season since that Ravens championship.

A Beyonce-fueled power outage and an over-saturation of Harbaugh Bros.-related storylines were our biggest life problems then. Simpler times, my friends. Flacco no doubt agrees -- fast forward six years and he's glancing over his shoulder at a depth chart featuring Lamar Jackson and Robert Griffin III, the former drafted in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft in a pick that is undoubtedly an informal pink slip for Flacco following this season. 

But drafting Jackson is exactly why the Ravens will win the AFC North -- and perhaps go even further ...? -- in 2018.

It's not the whole reason, of course. Jackson probably won't see the field much. If preseason production tells us anything about whether Jackson is ready to run an NFL offense on a full-time basis, well, he's not. 

And that's fine, because Jackson is a rookie. But his presence ensures Flacco understands his time is up, and that means Flacco will be extremely motivated to not only remind the Ravens he can play quarterback at a high level, but to also let the rest of the league know he can play well. Call it the Alex Smith Factor; the Redskins quarterback magically reinvented himself as a deep passer after the Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes in the first round last year. Motivation is real and Flacco should have it. Even if he doesn't, the long-time Ravens quarterback is at least healthy after a few years on the mend. 

Remember, Flacco tore his ACL in late 2015, which ended his season prematurely and left him limping around for much of the 2016 season. No one should weep for Flacco considering how much money he's made, but he ground his way back to be ready for 2016 with little fanfare. Flacco's back was wonky for virtually the entire 2017 season as well. Flacco isn't going magically morph into an MVP candidate, but he could easily have the best year of his career in 2018. (It's kind of a low bar, to be honest.) 

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There are other reasons to be optimistic about this offense as well. Alex Collins hasn't blown anyone away during training camp or preseason, but that's fine. This is a violent runner who has high goals for himself in the coming season. Kenneth Dixon has looked sharp leading up to the start of the year, so it's possible there's some depth here. 

At wide receiver, don't you DARE tell me not to get excited about John Brown. I'm excited about John Brown. And I'll remain excited about John Brown until John Brown gets hurt. Michael Crabtree is also here! So is Willie Snead! Stop laughing, please. Seriously: this is the best group of pass catchers Flacco's had -- in totality -- in several years. Add in Hayden Hurst, drink three beers very fast, squint really hard and you can talk yourself into this being a fun offense. 

Defensively, the loss of Jimmy Smith for the first quarter of the season is not great. But this Ravens team is very deep at the cornerback position, thanks to Brandon Carr, Marlon Humphrey and Tavon Young (who can man the slot if he's healthy). Tony Jefferson and Eric Weddle give Baltimore one of the best safety duos in the NFL. 

The front seven could be a little tricky and projecting a breakout for one of Ozzie Newsome's recent draft picks is key for their success. Chris Wormley, Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams were all taken in the first three rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft. But the trio combined for just three sacks last season, all coming from Bowser. That's fine, if one of them can take a leap forward. 

Matt Judon stepped up and recorded eight sacks last year; someone has to help out Terrell Suggs, otherwise he'll wear down early. Dude was drafted in 2003. He can't carry a pass rush for 16 games anymore. It's unfair to ask of him. A full season out of Brandon Williams is paramount too. 

External factors matter too, of course. The Ravens are in the AFC, so making the playoffs is certainly easier than it would be in the NFC. But we're projecting them to WIN THE DIVISION. Be bold, etc. And this isn't a terrible year for it. Everyone loves the Browns -- they're being hammered in Las Vegas as a possible Super Bowl winner, for some reason -- but expecting a jump from 0-16 to 12-4 or even 10-6 is asking a whole lot out of a young roster and a coaching staff that doesn't appear in sync. Even if the Browns are good it's not the worst thing in the world: they'll cause issues for everyone in the AFC North. And if they somehow win the division you just tip your cap.

The Bengals improved their offensive line on paper, but let's see how it pans out in reality first. Like the Browns, Cincinnati could create issues for the entire division as well and drag things into a big scrum. That's not the worst thing in the world for the Ravens either, really.

Obviously toppling the Steelers is key. I think this is the weakest team Pittsburgh trots out in a few years: Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell are great. They're the best trio in the NFL. And the Steelers have a very good offensive line. But I'm not buying they can fix the late-season issues that plagued the defense after Ryan Shazier's terrible injury. If the defense plays in 2018 like it did down the stretch, the offense will need to be perfect in order for Pittsburgh to hit 12-win territory. If Pittsburgh's floating in the 10-win area (the Steelers' win total is 10.5 with the under heavily juiced in Las Vegas), the Ravens can storm up on them.

The schedule is extremely friendly. Baltimore draws the Steelers twice before their bye (in theory they're healthy then), and the Ravens open with the Bills (home), Bengals (road), Broncos (home) and Steelers (road). 3-1 isn't out of the question. They play the Browns (road) and Titans (road) after that Pittsburgh game, and those are tough matchups away from the friendly confines of Baltimore, but splitting them wouldn't be weird. Then they close with the Saints (home), Panthers (road) and Steelers (home) before the bye. OK, that's really tough, but if you can manage to hit 5-4, you're in perfectly fine shape thanks to a soft back end.

After the break, Baltimore gets the Bengals and Raiders at home before playing the Falcons and Chiefs on the road. Again, split them. They close with the Buccaneers (home), Chargers (road) and Browns (home). If that's 2-1, the Ravens are 9-7 if you're being conservative about things. 

Flacco and John Harbaugh went 9-7 last year despite an incredibly bad streak of training camp injuries, a terrible receiving corps, no pass rush to really speak of and a brutal Week 17 loss to Andy Dalton and the Bengals. If this team is legitimately good -- and I believe they will be substantially better on both sides of the ball in 2018 -- the ceiling is much higher. 

When we look back on the 2018 season, predicting the Ravens to win the AFC North won't even look like a bold claim. It will look like something we should have seen coming. Fortunately for you, we did. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Will Brinson joined CBS Sports in 2010 and enters his seventh season covering the NFL for CBS. He previously wrote for FanHouse along with myriad other Internet sites. A North Carolina native who lives... Full Bio

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