The Super Bowl may be over, but I'm not ready to stop talking about the Baltimore Ravens or San Francisco 49ers just yet. Both teams played a phenomenal game, and a rematch at chilly MetLife Stadium next season would be a true test of which squad is the superior one.
Of course, the beauty of the NFL is that it's usually anyone's game from start to finish, so both teams making it as far as the Super Bowl again is all but guaranteed. The Ravens and 49ers have a lot of work to do between now and next season to ensure said rematch does go down.
Let's start with Baltimore. Its first priority this season would appear to be bringing back quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco back on a new contract. Seeing as how Flacco recently declared himself a "Raven for life," this shouldn't be too hard.
More importantly, with the free-agent pool fairly shallow this year, Baltimore would be silly to not bring Flacco back. Not only did he just win a Super Bowl for them, but he is coming off a season in which he set a new career-high with 3,817 passing yards. People can speculate all they want, but it's a safe bet that the former Delaware Blue Hen is going to be back in a Ravens uniform next season.
But the Ravens still have bigger crabs to bake if they want to defend their title next season. Star linebacker and team leader Ray Lewis announced he would retire at season's end, and he is a lot harder to replace.
In 17 NFL seasons, Lewis won two Super Bowls, two Defensive Player of the Year trophies and played in 13 Pro Bowls. Talent like that is hard to find, but the Ravens could contend next season if GM Ozzie Newsome makes the right decisions this offseason.
You see, the Ravens have two fine linebackers in Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, both of whom are set to hit free agency. Both have stated that they would like to remain in Baltimore and if Newsome can come to terms with them, plus re-sign 35-year-old Ed Reed at a lower price, Baltimore's defense will be set to carry the team on another run to the Super Bowl.
Even if not all players are brought back, the team's defense is strong enough and John Harbaugh is a good-enough coach that he can bring in new faces and have them quickly adapt to the system.
San Francisco's path back to the big game is not as involved. All of the key players on both offense and defense are set to return, so it's really just a matter of the team learning from the mistakes they made in its first Super Bowl appearance under head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Much of this rests on the shoulders of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who completed 16 of 28 pass attempts for 302 yards and a touchdown, plus an interception. While that was not a bad performance by any means, it was clear through Kaepernick's body language and footwork that he was having trouble reading Baltimore's tough-as-nails and experienced defense.
Basically, what needs to happen for the 49ers to get back to the Super Bowl next year is for Kaepernick to take his experience as a starter from this season and use it to learn how to become better next year. This means watching tape of every upcoming opponent's defense, both during the offseason and regular season.
Kaepernick must also not hesitate to look to Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst for pointers. As talented as he is, next season will be just his third year in the NFL, and he could use all the advice he can get to help San Francisco take its next step forward.
Most important of all, if the team is to make the trip to MetLife Stadium and perform in what is sure to be an extremely cold Super Bowl XLVIII, there is one vitally important task that must be completed. Under no circumstances can San Francisco view losing the Super Bowl this season as a failure. The fact that they got that far is a great achievement all its own, not to mention the fact that they came within five yards of a touchdown that likely would have spelled defeat for the more experienced Ravens.
Also, let's not forget that they were down 21-6 at halftime and outscored Baltimore 25-13 in the second half.
That all being said, with the combination of a productive offseason on Baltimore's part and staying focused and positive on San Francisco's, it's perfectly feasible that both the Ravens and 49ers can meet again in next year's Super Bowl.
Should that happen, it's going to be a test for both teams. Baltimore will be out to prove that they can win without Lewis, while San Francisco will look to steal the spotlight and say, "Now it's OUR turn."
It's a load of potential fireworks just waiting to go off, and next season cannot come soon enough.
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