A 10-6 record and the AFC North title got the Baltimore Ravens to the playoffs last year, and timing, talent and a legendary goal-line stand won them the Super Bowl.
However, the Ravens will need to walk a new path if they are to recapture the Lombardi Trophy this season. The roster is full of new faces who replace a slew of veterans, mostly on defense, and until Thursday night we won't have an idea of how they will all work together.
There is also the fact that repeating as Super Bowl champion isn't easy. The last time it was done was in 2005 and 2006 by the New England Patriots, and before that it was the Denver Broncos in 1998 and 1999.
Though not impossible, no team has repeated as champions after undergoing so much roster upheaval in the intervening offseason. Can the Ravens do it this year? Let's take a look at what it will take.
Answering Questions on Offense
The Ravens were willing to trade away veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers this offseason after Boldin didn't take a pay cut, and the ease with which they let this happen belied a plan for their receiving game—more passes to tight end Dennis Pitta.
Pitta, quarterback Joe Flacco's close friend and most preferred target during practices in the spring and summer, broke and dislocated his hip during training camp. Though Pitta seems destined for the injured reserve-recall list (which means he could come back later in the season), the Ravens and Flacco will need to play at least six or seven games without him.
This means they have to find someone—or a pair, or a trio of someones—to replace Pitta and Boldin.
This has been one of the most constant narratives of Baltimore's offseason and it still hasn't been resolved, even though the roster has been cut down to 53 players and Jacoby Jones is currently listed as WR2 on the Ravens' Week 1 depth chart.
In an ideal situation, Jones would be used as he was last year in Baltimore—as a lightning-fast and dangerous kick and punt returner and a fourth (or fifth) option for Flacco, targeted less than the top two receivers and Pitta (and perhaps also Ray Rice). A prominent receiving role has never suited him and when he made this clear to the Houston Texans in 2011, they released him after the season.
Further complicating matters for Baltimore's passing game is the injured reserve status of LaQuan Williams and the release of Tandon Doss. Now, behind Torrey Smith and Jones are free-agent signing (and former Raven) Brandon Stokley and a pair of rookies—Aaron Mellette and Marlon Brown.
Mellette has a Boldin-esque style of play—physical, not too fast—that could make him useful as the season wears on. But the most intriguing of the two is Brown, who may find himself taking over Jones' job sooner than later. Brown caught 10 passes on 17 targets in the preseason for 169 yards and two scores. His performance earned him time with the offensive starters and a spot on the 53-man roster, despite having gone undrafted.
The other key to having a good offense is running the ball, but the Ravens struggled with it during the preseason behind an offensive line configuration better suited to pass protection than run blocking. They'll need to do much better than the 3.3 yards-per-carry average they posted through four exhibition games.
On one hand, that shouldn't be hard—they have Rice and his backup Bernard Pierce, who averaged 4.4 and 4.9 yards per carry last season, respectively. They also brought back fullback Vonta Leach to be the lead blocker, and he's as good as it gets at the position in today's NFL. On the other, the low rushing average in the preseason, even when it comes to the first-team backs and offensive line on the field, might mean a shuffling of the line.
One must remember, however, that the Ravens' 363.9 yards per game was the 11th-best average in the league last year, while their combined 5,640 yards on the year was 16th in the league. For all of the emphasis of late on the NFL being an offensive-minded, pass-first league, the Ravens weren't a particularly explosive offense last year and yet they still won the Super Bowl.
A Super Bowl-winning season comes down to scoring enough points to win enough games, all the way to the Big One. The Ravens managed that last year without being in the top of the league in offense. Even if they don't make a big leap forward in passing and running the ball, as long as they don't take a huge step backward, they can still be a Super Bowl contender.
The Flacco Factor
Want to make money in the NFL? Be a quarterback in a contract year who just won the Super Bowl. That's Joe Flacco's springtime experience—after leading the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory (in which he threw 11 postseason touchdowns to no interceptions) he was rewarded a six-year, $120.6 million contract.
In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, Flacco did the biggest thing he could do, at exactly the right time. But now the pressure is on for Flacco to prove he's worth the money; it is, after all, a new season. What-have-you-done-for-me-lately doesn't mean that Super Bowl win anymore, it means how well he handles what's next.
There are two Flacco narratives. One is that he's been part of the Ravens reaching the playoffs for each of the five seasons that he's been their starter. He's got a strong arm, solid accuracy and has made do with a number of questionable or marginal receiving corps during his tenure.
The other is that he's wildly inconsistent from week to week, stringing together games in which he completed 50 percent or fewer of his passes for 200 or fewer yards with others in which he's had completion percentages in the 70s and 250 or more passing yards.
There's no telling what Flacco you'll see on any given week, while at the same time it's become simple to predict what Flacco's stat line will look like at the end of a season: Around 3,600 yards, 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
He did a little better last year, ending with 3,817 yards in the regular season, along with 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Notably, his weekly numbers didn't fluctuate so wildly once offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was replaced by Jim Caldwell. He also had a career-high four game-winning drives and four fourth-quarter comebacks, further cementing Flacco as one of the more "clutch" quarterbacks in the NFL despite his other inconsistencies.
With many of the veterans who defined the Ravens' identity now gone, it's Flacco's turn to be the team's undisputed leader on the field. This clear leadership role, combined with the Super Bowl MVP award and the big contract means there will be added scrutiny on him. He cannot have crazily fluctuating weeks, and he most certainly cannot regress. The margin for error is slimmer.
An Improved Defense
Though the Ravens did lose veteran offensive players this offseason—the Boldin trade, the retirement of longtime center Matt Birk—most of their roster attrition was on defense, as part of a long-term (and probably smart) retooling by general manager Ozzie Newsome that not only frees up salary-cap room but also brings fresh legs onto the field.
Linebacker Ray Lewis retired, while fellow linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe were allowed to walk in free agency. Free safety Ed Reed left in free agency as well, landing with the Houston Texans, while strong safety Bernard Pollard was released (he's now with the Tennessee Titans). Cornerback Cary Williams moved on to the Philadelphia Eagles. The moves left them with a lot of spots to fill.
But Newsome is never without a plan. He didn't just let these veterans leave and then simply hope someone could step up.
They successfully replaced each of these players to a man: Rookie Matt Elam and veteran backup James Ihedigbo are now the team's strong safeties, free-agent signing Michael Huff is the new free safety, lucky signing Elvis Dumervil replaces Kruger, underrated veteran Daryl Smith came in from the Jacksonville Jaguars to replace Lewis and Josh Bynes and rookie Arthur Brown are now working the inside spot that was Ellerbe's.
Last year, the Baltimore defense did the seemingly unthinkable—they gave up more yardage than ever before. On eight occasions (including three playoff games) they allowed over 400 yards to their opponents and on five gave up around or over 180 rushing yards. Lewis, Pollard and Reed were often to blame for this—their older, slower frames were no match for the mobile quarterbacks, receiver-fast tight ends and shifty runners they were tasked with stopping.
Though it didn't cost them as much as it could have—the Ravens lost only two games until Week 13—it was still a sign that things needed to change. Lewis and Reed, in particular, had been the faces of the team for over a decade, but if holding onto to tradition means poor in-game performance, then nostalgia must be discarded for competitiveness and a checkmark in the win column.
In the 2013 preseason, the Ravens defense gave up an average of 264 yards per game to their opponents, including an average of 125 rushing yards. Though there's not a ton that can be learned about any team or unit during the exhibition series, it is an improvement, and hopefully one that carries into the regular season.
While a bend-but-don't-break defensive philosophy works, as the Ravens proved through the first two-thirds of the 2012 season, it was a stance they had to take out of necessity. That's not Baltimore's true defensive identity—rather, it's don't ever bend, don't ever break. The hope is that the new influx of defensive talent will get them back to those roots.
The main problem here is that most of it looks good on paper—and that's not where football games are played. The Ravens defense must build chemistry, and rapidly. Miscommunications on the field can lead to blown coverages and huge gains by opposing offenses, and too many of those leads to losses. If they struggle early to mesh as a unit, Baltimore will have to play catch-up in their quest to win enough games to reach the playoffs, let alone win a second consecutive Super Bowl.
The 2011 Philadelphia Eagles are a cautionary tale in this scenario. This defensive rebuild has been far less scattershot (and expensive) as what the Eagles did that season. However, it provides a useful example of how a collection of talented players can seem like a can't-miss proposition until the actual work that it takes to become a team takes time is factored in. How long it takes for the Ravens (if it does, granted) will do much to influence their Super Bowl chances this year.
It's one thing to have a good defense and a good offense—but it's another altogether for both of those things to be on display against other teams. The Ravens have to win regular-season games to get to the playoffs, and win playoff games to get to the Super Bowl, so their slate of upcoming opponents must be considered when talking about Baltimore's chances for a repeat championship.
First, there's the matter of their three AFC North opponents, the Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, whom the Ravens will have to face twice. The Bengals have gone to the playoffs in both of the past two years, the Steelers are Baltimore's biggest rivals and are still dangerous despite their 8-8 finish in 2012 and the Browns are no longer going to be the NFL's doormat if their latest revamp sticks.
Ideally, the Ravens would go 6-0 in the division, setting them up nicely for a return to the playoffs. Last year, the Ravens swept the Browns but split their series with the Bengals and Steelers. Those two losses, combined with the fact they lost four of their final five games, nearly led to the Ravens missing the postseason in 2012.
In fact, without the conversion of 4th-and-29 against the San Diego Chargers that ultimately led to a Ravens overtime win, there would be no "defending Super Bowl champion Ravens" to speak of today. And the Chargers were an 8-8 team. The Ravens cannot let their collective guard down against any opponent, regardless of whether they ultimately win or lose the game.
Counting both Bengals games, the Ravens face a 2012 playoff team seven times this year, plus the Chicago Bears, who went 10-6 last season and just missed out on a Wild Card berth. Fortunately for the Ravens—who are a better team at home than away—all but the Denver Broncos game in Week 1 and the away game against the Bengals and the Bears game are at home.
That helps the Ravens significantly against tough opponents like the Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and Houston Texans. It's a hurdle they've already cleared, thanks to the NFL's schedule-makers. It doesn't give them automatic wins, of course, but it's a better proposition than, say, having to travel to Lambeau Field to get a victory.
The key to a Super Bowl repeat is simply wins. If the Ravens get enough of them, they can win the division and get back into the playoffs. That means defeating the most difficult of their upcoming opponents as well as those that are seemingly more easy to beat.
The emergence of the Bengals and the fact that the Steelers can easily bounce back this year also means that 10 wins might not be enough, as it was last year. The Ravens might need 12 or 13 victories to take the AFC North and certainly no fewer than 10 to make a Wild Card berth. It's not a forgiving schedule for the Ravens this year and how they hold up against it matters a lot.
What doesn't matter, however, is when they get hot and string wins together. Last year, it was in the first two-thirds of the season before losing four of their final five games, as noted above. It could be reversed this year, the hot streak could span the middle of the season, or they could have chunks of wins broken up with single losses.
No matter how they do it, the Ravens must rack up wins in a season with notable opponents or else the hopes of repeating as Super Bowl participants (let alone winners) dim.