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OWINGS MILLS — The rewarding aftermath of a breakthrough season hit the Baltimore Ravens on Wednesday as the NFL gave the defending AFC North champions an unprecedented three Monday night games along with an additional Sunday night prime-time appearance.
Three months after a franchise-record 13-3 campaign, the Ravens learned that, in addition to an already-known Monday night season opener Sept. 10 against the Cincinnati Bengals, they will also be featured on ESPN at the Pittsburgh Steelers (Nov. 5) and again at home against the New England Patriots (Dec. 3).
These are the most Monday night appearances in club history after previously appearing twice in 2001 after winning the Super Bowl and twice in 2005.
â€œItâ€™s exciting to open the season on national television against a division rival, and itâ€™s nice the league is featuring us often," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We earned that with the way we played last season."
The league office also scheduled the Ravens for a high-profile playoff rematch against the Indianapolis Colts in a Sunday night NBC game on Dec. 9 at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore took a 15-6 loss last January to the eventual Super Bowl champions in an AFC divisional playoff.
Thereâ€™s a slim possibility that the Colts game could be changed under the NFLâ€™s flex scheduling guidelines.
â€œI think the league made a concerted effort to give us a fair and balanced schedule,â€ Ravens team president Dick Cass said. â€œOur fans, I think, will be excited to see the league thinks so highly of us with the nationally-televised games.â€
The increased exposure for the Ravens is a positive that’s tempered by the challenge of a demanding schedule that coincides with being the No. 2 playoff seed in the AFC a year ago.
The Ravens will face four division champions and a total of five teams that made the playoffs last year. Besides their traditional AFC North schedule, the Ravens have four games against the NFC West and four against the AFC East.
Plus, thereâ€™s a potentially rigorous three-week stretch late in the season.
Baltimore will travel Nov. 25 to the San Diego Chargers, the defending AFC West champions and the returning top seed in the AFC after going 14-2 with one loss to the Ravens, before returning home Dec. 3 to play New England, a perennial Super Bowl contender that signed former Ravens All-Pro linebacker Adalius Thomas during free agency.
Then, the Ravens have their grudge match against Peyton Manning and the Colts the following week.
â€œBased on last season’s production, the last third of the season is challenging," Billick said. "Our season will be defined on how we handle this stretch.â€
However, the Ravens’ bye is Oct. 28, which is later than usual. And the three trips to the West Coast are spaced out between October, November and December.
"There is good spacing on the schedule in terms of the West Coast trips and the bye," Billick said. "It’s a very fair schedule."
Among the Ravensâ€™ other noteworthy matchups: playing former defensive coordinator Mike Nolanâ€™s improving San Francisco 49ers at Monster Park on Oct. 7 and newly-acquired running back Willis McGahee returning to Buffalo on Oct. 21 for the first time to play the Bills after making several critical comments of his former employer and city since being traded to Baltimore.
It marks the Ravensâ€™ first game at Buffalo in 12 seasons.
After road games against the Miami Dolphins (Dec. 16) and a first-ever road game against the Seattle Seahawks (Dec. 23), Baltimore concludes the season at home against the Steelers on Dec. 30. The Ravens swept their AFC North rival last year, outscoring them by a combined margin of 58-7.
â€œThe reality is that every game is challenging,â€ Billick said in a general statement about the schedule. â€œThat’s what makes the NFL competition so compelling."
NOTE: The Ravens finalized their preseason schedule times and dates, playing Aug. 13 at home against the Philadelphia Eagles, a nationally-televised Aug. 19 game at home against the New York Giants on NBC, concluding the preseason with road games against the Washington Redskins (Aug. 25) and the Atlanta Falcons (Aug. 31).
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.