Saturday, January 3, 2009

Ravens Set Sights on Super Bowl

In some eyes, the Baltimore Ravens are a gambler playing with house money. They say Baltimore should be happy just getting to the playoffs.

Few expected them to be playing football in January after a disastrous 2007 season and the firing of Super Bowl-winning coach Brian Billick.

Most teams in this position would simply be happy to be where they are today and view the season as a rousing success, but the Ravens are going to let the house money ride and refuse to reflect on what they’ve already accomplished.

Entering the season with low expectations, especially with a rookie head coach and rookie quarterback, the Ravens (11-5) secured a wild-card berth in the AFC Playoffs and will meet the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.

Teams in this unlikely position often tend to take a modest approach, using tired clich├ęs such as “we’re just happy to be here” or “we’re going to enjoy this.” However, humble has never been the Ravens’ style.

It was only eight years ago that then second-year coach Brian Billick addressed his players in the locker room after a victory over the San Diego Chargers to secure the first playoff berth in the franchise’s brief five-year history:

“Men, the time is here. It’s time to go to a Super Bowl.”

The brash remark turned heads considering the team lacked a big-name quarterback and seemingly came out of nowhere to grab a postseason spot, but Billick saw no reason to hide from the possibility.

He wanted his players to have no other vision in mind but winning a championship. Riding the coattails of a record-breaking defense, Billick’s statement proved prophetic as the Ravens went on to win Super Bowl XXXV seven weeks later.

Fast-forward to the present. Coach John Harbaugh has reined in a veteran locker room that was seemingly out of control and re-energized the Ravens into believing they are an elite team again.

Harbaugh may not be as gaudy or outspoken as Billick, but it’s clear the Ravens have set their sights much higher than simply making the playoffs.

One only has to look at the present NFL to see how quickly things can change. For every story like this year’s Ravens or Dolphins, there are stories of disappointing teams failing to meet high expectations. There’s no assurance that this opportunity will be present next year or even the year after.

Simply remember the 2007 Ravens. Following a 13-3 campaign in 2006, the Ravens entered the year poised for another run at the Super Bowl. However, injuries and a crumbling relationship between Billick and the team’s veterans led to a disastrous 5-11 season.

The Ravens cannot take anything for granted when change is so abundant throughout the league. Regardless of what happens on Sunday, or even possibly over the next few weeks, the team’s makeup will undoubtedly change following the season.

Though Baltimore is projected to have as much as $20 million in salary cap room this offseason, key veterans Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Bart Scott, Jason Brown, Matt Stover, Corey Ivy, Jim Leonhard, and Lorenzo Neal are unrestricted free agents. General manager Ozzie Newsome will look to re-sign as many of these veterans as possible, but no one’s return is guaranteed once players hit the free-agent market.

In addition to the impending number of free agents, the Ravens are a veteran-laden team in several areas. Though many are excited about rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and the improving offense, the second-ranked defense is still the main channel of Baltimore’s success.

The problem is defensive leaders Lewis, Ed Reed, Trevor Pryce, and Samari Rolle are all age 30 or older. Don’t ask any of these players if they’re “just happy to be here.” For these veterans, this playoff run could be their last shot at Super Bowl glory.

Another factor creating a strong sense of urgency is the status of highly respected defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. After narrowly missing out on the head coaching jobs in Atlanta last year and in San Diego the year before, this could be the year that Ryan finally joins the head coaching fraternity of the NFL. Teams already expressing interest include the New York Jets, St. Louis Rams, and Detroit Lions.

Ryan is greatly admired by his players, so what better way to send him off to a head-coaching gig than with a Super Bowl title? If Lewis and the defense have anything to say about it, teams interested in meeting with Ryan will have to wait a few more weeks.

Perhaps the biggest reason why the Ravens are setting their sights on making it to Super Bowl is their belief that they can beat anyone in the league.

Despite owning a 0-4 record against Pittsburgh, Tennessee, and Indianapolis, the three teams considered to be the favorites in the AFC, the Ravens lost their two games to Pittsburgh by a combined seven points and one to Tennessee by three.

The Ravens would probably like to avoid a rematch with Indianapolis after losing 31-3 to the Colts back in October. Then again, the Ravens believe they have improved greatly since October, and a possible rematch with Indianapolis would not take place until the AFC Championship.

Though the Ravens might lack the outspoken bravado they held under Billick, make no mistake, Harbaugh has his players believing they’re ready to take the next step. Even the mood after clinching a wild-card berth last Sunday was more business-like and less euphoric than the typical Cinderella team to make the playoffs.

The Ravens do not intend to finish their season with anything less than a championship. The first test will be a tough Miami team that also never figured to be in this position after their misfortune in 2007.

“We have an opportunity to prove we’re the best team in the NFL,” Harbaugh said, following Baltimore’s 27-7 victory over Jacksonville last Sunday. “That’s what we’re going to try to do.”

The Ravens might be playing with house money, but they hope to ride their good fortune all the way to Tampa Bay and Super Bowl XLIII. They will not expect anything less.

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