The Baltimore Ravens have come teasingly close to reaching the Super Bowl in each of the last three seasons.
Ray Lewis is entering his 16th NFL season and desperately wants a second Super Bowl title to add to his Hall of Fame resume; every one of the last four seasons has had a "let's win it for Ray" feel to it in Baltimore.
If they are finally going to do it in 2011, here are five players who must step up and deliver.
This one may come as a bit of a surprise. Ray Rice has been by far the Ravens' most dominant and consistent offensive player, with nearly 4,000 total yards the last two seasons.
Still, when you are talking Baltimore Ravens, you have to bring up the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In regards to performances against their biggest foes, Rice has left a lot to be desired. In three games against Pittsburgh last season, Rice combined for 84 yards rushing, 59 yards receiving and one touchdown. Even worse, his lone fumble of the season helped lead to the Steelers' comeback from a 21-7 deficit in the playoffs.
Baltimore cleaned out its backfield by saying goodbye to Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain. The Ravens brought in Vonta Leach to block and Ricky Williams to help churn out the tough yards, but if they want to make the next step, their star halfback is going to have show up in the most important games.
The Baltimore Ravens said goodbye to the franchise's leading receiver, Todd Heap. That leaves Ed Dickson as the team's starting tight end.
Presumably, the team liked what they saw from Dickson, or else they would not have made the move. Dickson has the size (6'4" and 255) to excel, and had an impressive preseason game against the Washington Redskins, while teams were playing their starters the most, catching three balls for 57 yards.
Still, we have seen many players with the physical tools excel in the preseason, only to fail miserably (Limas Sweed, anyone???) when it came to the real thing.
Baltimore also said goodbye to long-time wideout Derrick Mason, who is second to Heap in the Ravens' career receiving yards.
Bryant McKinnie represents the Baltimore Ravens' lone threat at an undisputed advantage over the nemesis Pittsburgh Steelers. No pressure.
The team brought in the massive "Mount" McKinnie to protect quarterback Joe Flacco's blind side. The move shifts Michael Oher back over to the right side of the line, and allows Marshal Yanda to play his natural position of right guard. On paper, this is easily the team's best line since they drafted Flacco.
For the moves to pay off, however, McKinnie has to play at the Pro Bowl form he showed for the Minnesota Vikings andhas the unenviable responsibility of keeping James Harrison off Flacco at least twice per season.
Unfortunately for McKinnie, his height (6'8") may be a huge disadvantage against Harrison, as the squat linebacker uses leverage to his fullest advantage against taller tackles—and there are none taller than McKinnie.
If the big tackle can find a way to help keep Flacco's jersey clean, the Ravens may yet find their way past their division foe.
Like the Pittsburgh Steelers (it is almost creepy how similar these teams are) the biggest weakness for the Baltimore Ravens is their secondary.
The team hopes they have helped to solve that problem by drafting a shutdown corner in the form of Jimmy Smith.
Smith, the team's first-round pick out of Colorado, has the size (6'2", 211) to match up with the league's premier receivers. Smith has looked OK in the preseason, with two passes defensed in three games, and seems willing to use his big frame to come up in run support.
Still, the only way to judge Smith's game will be in the regular season, playing against other teams' best wideouts for 60 minutes, not a quarter or two.
Once again, it all comes down to Joe Flacco. No matter how the rest of the team does, the Baltimore Ravens will only go as far as Flacco's right arm takes them.
Flacco set career bests virtually across the board last season: touchdowns, interceptions and passer rating. Still, he saved his worst for last, completing 53 percent of his passes for one touchdown, one interception, and had a costly fumble against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs.
If the team is going to escape the AFC, Flacco has to do better than that. He plays for a great team, so he does not have to fill the box score like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. He just has to play smart football, not turn the ball over, and convert some 3rd-and-10s.
If Flacco can pull off big game performances of 225 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers, it should be enough for the Baltimore Ravens to win their most important matchups. Easier said than done against James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and company.