Baltimore, MD. The Baltimore Ravens were about as close as a team can get to the Super Bowl last year, without actually getting there. After a 12-4 season, they were primed to head into Foxboro and knock off favored New England. Joe Flacco played a marvelous game, the defense was their solid selves, and it literally came down to the final minute as to who would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl two weeks later. In the final minute, in New England territory, Flacco threw one of the best passes of his career. It was a dart down the right sideline, into the waiting arms of Lee Evans in the end zone. Just as it appeared that Joe Flacco had stunned the NFL world, a New England defender swiped the ball away before Evans could pull it in for a go-ahead score. With just seconds left in the game, this for all intents and purposes, would have been the game-winning play and sent the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl. Billy Cundiff then came on to at least tie the game and send it into overtime, but it wasn’t meant to be. The short kick sailed wide left, and it was New England who would go on to face the Giants in Indianapolis in early February. Since that game last January, this team has had to stew about it and realize that it was a huge missed opportunity for a veteran-laden squad. Ray Lewis is not getting any younger, and neither is Ed Reed. These two guys are destined for the Hall of Fame one day, and the window to get it done is rapidly closing. So as the Baltimore Ravens open their season tonight vs Cincinnati, they are looking to rebound from that crushing loss in the AFC Championship game. They are still supremely talented, and a berth in this years playoffs should be penciled in. Here are the Top 7 reasons why the Baltimore Ravens will run away with the AFC North in 2012……
1 – Closing Window - As previously mentioned, this team has some aging stars. We all know who they are, as Mr Lewis and Mr Reed have to realize this year may be their last opportunity to get it done in the AFC. Ray already has a ring, but Ed does not. This fact alone should inspire the entire team to do everything it can to make sure Ed Reed retires as a Super Bowl champion. He is one of the greatest safeties of all-time, and a championship would only elevate his amazing legacy. 2012 may be the last season where these guys are healthy enough to make a serious run.
2 – Still A Top Defense - The offseason injury to Terrell Suggs was a crusher, as nobody really knows when he will be back. Suggs will be 30 in a month, so his best chance to win a Super Bowl could very well be while Lewis and Reed are still around. This defense is still one of the best around, and definitely good enough to win in January. Haloti Ngata may be the best interior defensive lineman in the NFL, and a beast for offenses to have to deal with. This unit can still take over games at certain times, and with #52 flying around, is still feared by opposing offenses.
3 – Ray Rice - Rice, simply put, is probably the best all around running back in the NFL. He can do it all….run between the tackles, burst outside, catch a ton of passes, and anything else he is asked to do. He is one major reason this offense is so hard to deal with, as Ray is just so versatile. Another season of around 2,000 total yards should be expected, as he makes the Ravens offense very unpredictable.
4 – The Growth of Joe Flacco - Flacco entered the NFL a few years ago as merely a “game-manager”. Baltimore didn’t ask him to win games, they just made sure he didn’t lose them. Well, now he has developed into a QB who can make big plays with his arm, and deep shots down the field to Anquan Boldin or Torrey Smith keeps defenses honest. He can make all the throws, and has a great grasp of this offense. Flacco is ready to take that next step into possible top-tier QB status, and 2012 could be when it happens.
5 – John Harbaugh - Much like his brother in San Francisco, Harbaugh is a hard-nosed coach who is perfect for this kind of team. He commands respect, and has great energy which his team feeds off of. He is a smart NFL mind, and understands how to use the talent on his roster. A Super Bowl trophy or two down the road for John would not be shocking by any means.
6 – The Overrated AFC North - Baltimore is in a perfect position to win this division with a few games to spare this year. Pittsburgh has the look of a team who will have issues on both offense and defense this season, and may very well have a disappointing 2012. Cincinnati surprised everyone in 2011 with a wildcard berth, but now have expectations to deal with. The Bengals have a solid foundation of young players for the future, but I have a feeling they may take a slight step back because of immaturity this season. Cleveland is Cleveland, need I say more? The Ravens should have this division wrapped up by early to mid December.
7 – Outstanding Offensive Line - This is one of the best lines in the entire NFL, and gives the Baltimore Ravens some of their overall toughness. With McKinnie, Birk, and Oher, they can create some gaping holes for Ray Rice or give Joe Flacco plenty of time to do his thing in the pocket. This unit is quite a bit better than Pittsburgh’s, and is a huge reason why Baltimore has a big edge offensively in the AFC North.
- The Baltimore Ravens should finish at around 12-4 again, much they did in 2010 and 2011. Even without Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs for who knows how long, this team is still ultra talented and has plenty to dominate the division in 2012. This team should have tons of motivation to win this year and it will help that their AFC North opponents will not be as formidable as in recent years. A possibility of a first round bye in the playoffs could definitely be there in January, and another trip to New England for a ticket to the Super Bowl would be exactly what this team would want.
Denver Sports by J Simp