The Baltimore Ravens are once again Super Bowl contenders. After years of disappointment, though, something definitely needs to change in Baltimore to ensure this talented team takes the next step.
From addressing offseason concerns to the continued development of the team's young talent, the steps the Ravens need to take to finally become champions are clear.
Here is the Ravens' blueprint to a Super Bowl victory this season.
The No. 1 concern for the Ravens going into this season is the offensive line.
After a preseason in which the line struggled to protect quarterback Joe Flacco, these questions continue to mount.
The Ravens have significant individual talent across the line with Bryant McKinnie, Marshal Yanda and Matt Birk all being former Pro Bowlers.
Unfortunately, McKinnie is well past his prime, and Michael Oher has his share of issues at the other tackle spot.
McKinnie has been an offseason distraction for the Ravens this season, as questions about his release have constantly hung over the franchise. While McKinnie is, in fact, back, his pass blocking and conditioning are major concerns.
Oher, on the other hand, is a talented blocker; however, he struggles mightily with penalties. Fans seem to expect at least one false-start or holding penalty on Oher every game, and he rarely disappoints in that regard.
This offensive line should be solid at opening up holes for Ray Rice, but keeping Joe Flacco upright will be key this season. The Ravens will likely pass the ball more than ever, and backup Tyrod Taylor has inspired little confidence this preseason.
The Ravens need Flacco healthy and fresh this season, and that starts with the offensive line.
The Ravens have finally made the receiver position a priority after years of settling for mediocrity. That has led to the fastest and most dynamic receiving corps in franchise history.
The headliner is Torrey Smith who has lit up the preseason and is expected to be a breakout star. Smith has developed immensely this offseason, showing improved hands and route running along with his track-star speed.
Anquan Boldin continues to age, but he could improve this season as well with defenses paying more attention to Smith. One of Boldin's best games came against the Texans in the playoffs because the Texans rolled coverage toward Smith. Boldin is still talented enough to take advantage of single coverage, and he can expect to see much more of it this year.
Behind the starters are several young and new players. Jacoby Jones is a speedster with inconsistent hands. He will probably used extensively on deep routes, end-arounds and the occasional screen.
Tandon Doss has a bright future, but for this season, he should see the field as a reliable third down target. His hands might be the best on the team.
Deonte Thompson is a hypertalented undrafted free agent with immense speed and surprising polish. Thompson won't be given a big role on offense initially, but he could start to earn reps if he continues to impress in practice.
Finally, LaQuan Williams will definitely get reps, thanks to his toughness and ability to make the tough catch. If he develops some semblance of consistency, Williams could have a nice season this year.
How the young players develop will be key for the Ravens this year. A breakout season from Smith and a solid season from one of the backups would provide a major spark for the offense and might be enough to push the Ravens over the edge this season.
The Ravens lost almost all of their pass rush when Terrell Suggs tore his Achilles. Fans were optimistic that the Ravens could find a way to make up for that loss of production, but to this point, the Ravens have failed to do so.
The Ravens' first-team defense completely failed to get consistent pressure in the preseason, as even Blaine Gabbert looked comfortable in the pocket.
With first- and second-round draft picks throughout the front seven, the Ravens have no excuse for this lack of pressure. Paul Kruger, Sergio Kindle and Courtney Upshaw were all drafted for their pass-rushing ability, but they haven't shown the ability to regularly get to the quarterback.
The Ravens best pass-rushers, right now, are probably along the their defensive line with Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee showing some burst. McPhee has a great motor and athleticism while Ngata is a legitimate All-Pro. Unfortunately, neither has proven to be a consistent option to provide pressure, either.
One of these players will need to break out in 2012. If they don't, and the Ravens defense loses it's punch, the Ravens will have a tough season.
Much has been made of Joe Flacco this offseason. He has been dynamite in practice and the preseason, and the Ravens finally seem ready to take the leash off their quarterback.
All signs are pointing to a breakout season from Flacco. Now, he just needs to do it.
Elite quarterbacks win championships, and mediocre quarterbacks don't. If and when Flacco becomes elite, he will win a Super Bowl. The Ravens hope that this season is the one.
As tough as the memory is for Ravens fans, the devastating loss in the AFC championship game taught a valuable lesson for the Ravens. Finishing is key.
Chalk the Ravens' failure to finish the Patriots last season as lack of luck or lack of skill, but regardless, the Ravens need the ball to bounce their way this season.
Getting rid of the two goats of the loss is a start. There is a fresh sense of optimism in the locker room after an offseason of "What ifs?"
The continued maturation of the Ravens' young players is another positive sign. Flacco showed signs of becoming one of the best fourth-quarter quarterbacks in the NFL last season while Torrey Smith and Lardarius Webb both stepped up in big situations.
With a strong locker room full of brilliant men, players and leaders, the Ravens should be mentally tougher than ever. This team is fully capable of winning a championship. They just need the ball to finally bounce their way.