OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Reaching the postseason isn't a goal for the Baltimore Ravens, it's an expectation.
The Ravens have advanced to the playoffs in six of seven seasons under coach John Harbaugh. They posted at least one victory in each of those six trips and earned a Super Bowl trophy in 2012.
Baltimore has accomplished all this despite playing only two of 13 postseason games at home. Playing on the road in January proved too tough a hurdle last season, when the Ravens won at Pittsburgh before losing to New England.
This year, the Ravens prefer to take an easier path to the Super Bowl. The first priority is to win the AFC North with the hope claiming home-field advantage right up to the Super Bowl.
"We definitely want multiple home playoff games. That's what we're looking for," Harbaugh said. "If we win more games than anybody else, we'll get them all at home. That's the goal."
Quarterback Joe Flacco has proven that he can win anywhere in the postseason: His seven road playoff wins are the most by any starting quarterback in NFL history. Given an option, though, the eight-year veteran would prefer performing on familiar turf.
"Obviously, we would love to get some home playoff games in front of our fans," he said. "But at the same time, a playoff game is a playoff game. We'd love to play the way we should and be good enough to get another chance to be there."
Strapped by the salary cap, the Ravens lost wide receiver Torrey Smith, tight end Owen Daniels, and defensive linemen Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee during the past offseason.
But they shored up the secondary, a glaring weakness last season, and return several key elements of an offense that last season set franchise records for points (409) and yardage (5,838).
Here are some things to know about the 2015 Ravens:
SMITH SWAN SONG: Steve Smith says this will be his final season, and Baltimore needs him to go out in style.
Top draft pick Breshad Perriman was supposed to replace Torrey Smith as the Ravens' deep threat, but he's been sidelined with a lingering knee injury. Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown and Michael Campanaro are capable receivers, but the 36-year-old Smith is poised to be Flacco's primary target until the speedy Perriman returns.
Although Harbaugh would prefer to limit Smith's snap-counts to keep him fresh, that plan may never be implemented.
"That's something we discussed, but I think it's going to be hard for both of us to do," Smith said.
And why is that?
"Because we're both competitive, and we want to win," Smith said.
LAST LINE OF DEFENSE: Twelve different cornerbacks were on the roster last year, which explains to a degree why Baltimore ranked 24th in pass defense.
Although safety Matt Elam is apparently out for the season with a torn triceps, the backfield appears vastly improved. Jimmy Smith returns after missing the final eight games with a foot injury, and free agent pickups Lyle Arrington and Kendrick Lewis add veteran leadership and depth.
Baltimore had only 11 interceptions last season. This year, creating turnovers is a priority.
"We need to be a defense across the board that people fear in the sense that, if you want to throw the ball out there, there's a good chance it's going to come back the other way," Harbaugh said.
FORSETT ENCORE: Justin Forsett started the 2014 season as the Ravens' third-string running back. He finished in the Pro Bowl.
Forsett had a career-high 1,266 yards rushing last season after playing with four different teams in his first six NFL seasons.
Now that he's a star, and intends to keep it that way.
"Man, I want to be better. I want to be able to exceed all those things that I had last year," Forsett said.
SACK PACK: Sure, Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs are both over 30. But they have 10 Pro Bowls and nearly 200 sacks between them — including 29 last season.
"It's great to play with a great player," Dumervil said. "We just feed off each other. He makes a play; I want to make a play. I make a play; he wants to make a play."
UNBALANCED SCHEDULE: If the Ravens can survive a challenging start to their schedule, they will be rewarded on the back end.
Baltimore plays five of its first seven games on the road, including four games out west: at Denver, Oakland, San Francisco and Arizona.
After a Nov. 8 bye, the Ravens play five of the last eight games at home. Over the final four weeks, Baltimore hosts Seattle, Kansas City and Pittsburgh before closing at Cincinnati.
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