RAVENS DEALING WITH BEING THE FAVORITE FOR THE FIRST TIME
This is the time of the year when you read all those “season previews” and see what magazine or sportswriter or broadcaster is picking which team to be in San Francisco for Super Bowl 50.
Finally, in their 20th year of existence and after two Super Bowl victories, this is the first time the Baltimore Ravens are on that dance card as a “favorite.”
It’s worthless preseason revelry that John Harbaugh probably doesn’t welcome as a talking point, but certainly the team has earned that role through the rare consistency shown by the franchise to reassemble talent, adjust to the salary cap and a tribute to the rising stock of a franchise quarterback like Joe Flacco.
The battle cry of every NFL franchise is the same: “If you don’t have an elite quarterback, you can’t win a Super Bowl.” Well, the Ravens are one of a handful of teams that has a known, proven, reliable commodity under center in the form of Flacco.
In eight seasons, Flacco has never missed a snap. Last season, behind a revamped and healthy offensive, he once again led the Ravens into the postseason where the team twice had 14-point leads in Foxborugh that were squandered to the Patriots.
The Ravens were a very good team in 2014 and there are reasons to believe this season will be an improvement as many emerging young stars develop around their franchise quarterback.
All eyes are on Flacco, who has not only survived but also thrived with new teachers, gurus, coaches and voices in his ears throughout eight mostly excellent seasons as the Ravens’ signal caller. This offseason brought more change as offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak left for John Elway, Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Former Bears head coach Marc Trestman will take over the reigns of the signal calling of a team that returns veteran Justin Forsett, who enjoyed a breakout season behind a veteran offensive line.
The Ravens do have some concerns at the skill possession positions on the outside. Aside from Steve Smith, who continues to make his case for Canton at 36 and was still making amazing plays in the preseason this year, there are no proven targets for Flacco. The team is hoping Marlon Brown and Kamar Aiken can provide a spark while first-round draft pick Brashad Perriman tries to get healthy enough to get on the field.
The other piece of stability that makes the Ravens such an attractive pick is the leadership and steady hand of Harbaugh, who made a big splash in the preseason by showing the edgier side of his personality during halftime interviews. But it’s that intensity that fuels his football team, which has consistently produced road playoff wins despite never fully dominating a crowded top of the AFC North with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati always looming as double-digit win threats.
Pittsburgh will have a high-powered offense with Ben Roethlisberger this season but a suspect and youthful defensive corps. Cincinnati returns a loaded roster but questions about the January prospects of quarterback Andy Dalton will always be raised until the Bengals can find a way to win a game in the playoffs. And the Browns, well…they’re the Browns.
The Ravens have always been known for defense – dating back to Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and droves of Pro Bowl appearances and big-money abdications to other teams where many floundered over the years. This defensive corps lost a long-time leader in Haloti Ngata, who the team dealt to the Detroit Lions, and will be younger along the defensive line in 2015 with Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan and draftee Carl Davis, who appeared very solid in August for the Ravens.
C.J. Mosley is entering his sophomore year in the NFL and appears poised for stardom. He’ll anchor a linebacker rotation led by steady presence of veteran Daryl Smith. The Ravens also return the nastiest pass rushing tandem in the AFC with multiple Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil providing a real threat to opposing quarterbacks on every snap.
In 2014, the secondary was the Achilles heel of the Ravens squad and the bitter loss to Tom Brady and the Patriots could be pinned on a backside that just couldn’t close it out. Decimated by injuries through last season, the team hopes that the return of Jimmy Smith, Ladarius Webb and the addition of Kyle Arrington and Kendrick Lewis will stabilize their pass defense against a bunch of dangerous wide receivers in the AFC. The team also signed former problem child safety Will Hill to a two-year deal after he came to Baltimore last year and turned his life around – on and off the field. He proved to be a fantastic – if not risky – addition last season when the New York Giants jettisoned him after several skirmishes with the law.
The one aspect of the Ravens that always seems steady is in the kicking game. Justin Tucker might be the best in the sport and veteran punter Sam Koch is solid. Heading into the opener, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg was still looking for an answer at punt and kick returner. The team cut Jacoby Jones and now will search in September for a solution.
The Ravens have a wretched early schedule with a pair of back-to-back West Coast trips to Denver and Oakland in September and San Francisco and Arizona in October. If they can survive the first stretch, they’ll have a lot of home cooking during the holidays that they hope to parlay into some rare January home playoff games and a chance to fight through to San Francisco and Super Bowl 50.
Their chances are as good as any.
It’s hard to bet against Harbaugh and Flacco over the last decade.
Nestor J. Aparicio
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