The Baltimore Ravens entered the 2015 season with real playoff aspirations. At the time, it wasn't crazy to predict that they could win the AFC North. After all, they were just three years removed from winning the Super Bowl and lost a close Divisional round game to the New England Patriots in 2014. They had a solid offense in place with Joe Flacco, Justin Forsett and Steve Smith, and a defense that was anchored by Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.
But everything fell apart in 2015. Due to a major rash of injuries and some plain bad luck, the Ravens fell to 5-11, the first losing season in John Harbaugh's tenure. However, there are plenty of reasons to believe Baltimore can bounce back and be a contender in 2016.
Let's start with the first, obvious reason: It's almost guaranteed that Ravens will be healthier next season.
A team snakebitten by injuries
The first serious injury came in Week 1 when Suggs tore his Achilles. Losing the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year in the first regular season game was already an uphill climb, but that was just the beginning for the Ravens. In Week 8, Smith tore an Achilles, also ending his season. At the time, the Ravens were 2-6 and their season was already slipping away, so losing their best receiver was yet another setback.
Things went from bad to worse a few weeks later. Say what you will about Flacco and whether he's an "elite" quarterback, but there's no question that he's the most important player on the offense. In Week 11, Flacco tore both his ACL and MCL, the first major injury he's suffered in his eight-year career. To make matters worse, Forsett broke his forearm in the same game, which meant Baltimore lost both its starting quarterback and top rusher for the rest of the season.
Without those key offensive players, the Ravens sputtered. They trotted out a rotating committee of Ryan Mallett, Jimmy Clausen and Matt Schaub under center, with predictable results. Schaub started two games following Flacco's injury, throwing four interceptions to three touchdowns as the Ravens went 0-2. They turned to Clausen in Weeks 14 and 15 but he wasn't much better, tossing three interceptions in two more losses.
Eventually Mallett finished out the season, going 1-1 in two starts of his own. Not many teams are going to win a lot of games when they're starting three different quarterbacks in just over a month, but it's clear that Flacco's injury more or less derailed the entire offense.
The good news for Ravens fans is that almost all of those injured players will be back healthy in 2016. Smith is an iffy case because he turns 37 in May and Achilles injuries are hard to rehab from at any age, but he's determined to not let his acclaimed career end on such a down note. Flacco had his knee injury in late November, which makes him a question mark for training camp but it'd be surprising if he's not under center in Week 1.
Although Forsett is 30 years old, he's had a journeyman career and doesn't have as much tread on his body. So he should be 100 percent soon.
There's one more injured player who didn't play in 2015 but could make an impact in 2016: Breshad Perriman. The Ravens selected the wide receiver with their first-round draft pick, but he picked up a PCL injury in training camp and didn't play a snap last season. The coaching staff remains high on Perriman, who is 6'2, 218 pounds and can run a 4.3 40. His upside has yet to be tapped, which should energize a Ravens offense that didn't have a real deep threat after letting Torrey Smith walk in free agency.
They stayed competitive even as the losses piled up
The Ravens lost 11 games, but nine of those losses were by eight points or less, so it's not like they were getting blown off the field every week. That speaks to the coaching of Harbaugh, who had his players motivated for every game even after their season was a lost cause.
Some of Baltimore's losses either came down to bad timing or just plain dumb luck. Perhaps the most heartbreaking loss was to the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 10. Leading 20-19, Baltimore seemingly had the game won when Dumervil sacked Blake Bortles with no time left on the clock. However, Dumervil got flagged for a facemask on that play:
Since games can't end on a defensive penalty, the Jaguars got 15 extra yards and one more play. The foul pushed them into field goal range, setting up Jason Myers for a 53-yard field goal. To make matters worse, the NFL later admitted that the officials missed a Jaguars false start on the field goal attempt, which should've blown the play dead and ended the game, preserving Baltimore's lead. Instead, Myers hit the field goal and Jacksonville walked away with the win.
Another tough loss came to the Oakland Raiders in Week 2, back when the Ravens still had some hope in the season. They took a 33-30 lead with 2:10 left in the game, but the defense -- still reeling from Suggs' injury the week before -- came undone, allowing Derek Carr to march 80 yards down the field on 12 plays. Carr eventually hit Seth Roberts for the game-winning touchdown with 30 seconds left.
Baltimore did beat the Cleveland Browns in Week 12 on one of the most improbable finishes you will ever see. However, its earlier Week 5 matchup with Cleveland didn't go as well. Baltimore had a 21-9 lead in the third quarter but let it slip away -- to Josh McCown, of all quarterbacks. They took the lead back late in the fourth quarter, but once again the defense came unraveled, allowing McCown to hit Isaiah Crowell in the end zone and convert a two-point attempt to go up, 30-27, with 3:15 left. The Ravens could only manage a field goal in the final seconds of regulation and went on to lose in overtime.
If those three games swing the other way, the Ravens would finish the year 8-8 and suddenly the big picture looks much different, given all the injuries. Harbaugh remains one of the best coaches in the business -- this is his first losing season with the Ravens in eight years, and only the second time he missed the playoffs. It took a number of major injuries and some unlucky bounces to get there, so it's safe to say he's still pretty good.
2015 was a lost season for the Ravens, but if all the important players come back healthy, there's no reason to think they can't be contenders again in 2016. They'll face a tough battle against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North, but as long as Harbaugh continues to display his coaching acumen, Baltimore will be relevant more often than not.
If there's one thing we learned about the Ravens over the years, it's that you can never count them out. We could easily see them proving the doubters wrong once again in 2016.