The Baltimore Ravens have competed in postseason play in each of the past three seasons, and this season seems no different.
Baltimore is once again loaded on defense, but the team seems to be more balanced than ever before.
Joe Flacco is entering his fourth season as the Ravens' signal caller, and a Pro Bowl season seems to be on the horizon for the young quarterback.
Baltimore resides in the always tough AFC North, but here are 10 reasons why this team is a playoff lock.
Sam Koch was extremely solid for the Baltimore Ravens last season.
Out of 81 punts, 39 were placed inside the 20 yard line, which had him ranked second behind Steve Weatherford's league-leading 42. Koch also ranked fourth in net yards per punt, with an average of 39.2 yards.
Look for Koch to be even better this season, due to the fact that Baltimore's offensive will set him up with more opportunities to punt the ball inside the 20.
The Ravens pass defense was suspect last season, coming in as the 21st ranked unit in the league.
Baltimore addressed the need of cornerback via the draft, with the first-round selection of Colorado's Jimmy Smith, but don't look for Smith to start right away.
Smith is a big corner who is listed at 6'2", and I expect him to be used in red zone situations early in the season. Domonique Foxworth, who was placed on injured reserve last season after suffering a knee injury on the first day of training camp, will propel that Ravens pass defense and make them a top 10 unit.
The Ravens lost a big piece of the puzzle last week, when Derek Mason decided to take his talents to New York to join the Jets.
Baltimore faithful was upset with the move, and it looked as if the Ravens were sticking with what they had. Then out of the blue, Baltimore acquired Buffalo Bills wide receiver Lee Evans for a fourth round selection in next year's draft.
Evans will provide a deep threat for Joe Flacco, as well as another veteran presence. The group is lead by Anquan Boldin, while rookie Torrey Smith and second year player David Reed will continue to contribute. With Joe Flacco entering his fourth NFL season, expect big numbers from this group this season.
Players from the University of Miami always claim themselves to be the most "swagged" out players in the league, and it's hard for me to argue.
Ray Lewis and Ed Reed have turned themselves into two of the most feared players in the league, all while backing up their mouths with their play on the field.
Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs are also two of the best at their respective positions, and it will be exciting to see what all four bring this season.
This defense is one of the toughest and hard-hitting in the league, and that alone could propel them into the playoffs.
Flacco is entering his fourth NFL season, and he seems to be more poised than ever. Joe is in his second full season with pro-bowl wide receiver Anquan Boldin, and it seems as if the sky's the limit for this offense. Flacco has been called out by numerous players already this season, including Pittsburgh's Lamar Woodley.
On Thursday's NFL Network telecast, Woodley had this to say about the Ravens and their Quarterback:
"No, not at all because they have to go through one team—that's the Pittsburgh Steelers in that AFC championship. So in order for them to get to the Super Bowl, they have to beat us, and we're not gonna let that happen once we get that close. So that's not gonna happen in this lifetime."
I expect Flacco to have his best season as a pro, and his Ravens will be ahead of the Steelers in the division by season's end, if Flacco can play consistently.
The NFC West proved to be the NFL's bottom feeder last year when the Seattle Seahawks won the division at the mediocre record of 7-9.
Looking at the schedule, the Ravens now have eight games of which they will be the favorite.
Ray Rice has already proven to be one of the best backs in the league, and is a guy who is a threat from the backfield as well as in the passing game.
The Ravens added former Miami Dolphins back Ricky Williams, and I expect him to have a tremendous season. Even while splitting time in Miami, Williams was able to post 1,121 yards rushing and a 4.7 yard per carry average while scoring 11 touchdowns, and will be a nice complement to Ray Rice.
I see Ricky as a definite upgrade from Willis McGahee.
Ray Lewis and Ed Reed speak for themselves. Their leadership, toughness, and play-making ability alone should guide the Ravens to the playoffs.
Ray is entering his 16th season, but it looks as if nothing will slow him down on his quest to capture his second Lombardi trophy.
Ed is still regarded as one of the top play-making safeties in the game, and with the help of better corner back play; this could be his best year yet.
The Ravens are loaded with veteran experience, which includes guys that have played in multiple playoff games and Super Bowls.
This team knows that this season has to have a "Super Bowl or bust" mentality, but they also know that it won't be easy.
This team will go where Joe Flacco takes them, and I expect him to do big things. The pass defense will be much improved, which was the weak link for them last season. Time will tell, but here are the 10 reasons why the Ravens are playoff locks for the 2011 season.