Ravens poised to take next step in crowded AFC
Associated Press - UPDATED AUG 29, 2012 5:45 PM
Two years, two close calls, and two long offseasons pondering ''what
if'' for the Baltimore Ravens.
What if Billy Cundiff hadn't missed that chip-shot field goal against
the Patriots in the AFC championship game eight months ago, the one
that would have sent it to overtime? What if Baltimore's usually
reliable defense held onto that seemingly comfortable 14-point halftime
lead over the hated Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round the
year before that?
In a league that rarely offers second chances - let alone third ones -
the Ravens find themselves still searching for that Lombardi Trophy to
bookend the one linebacker Ray Lewis led them to a dozen seasons ago.
Time is running out.
Lewis is 37 and noticeably slimmer but he's already logged 222 games at
one of football's most demanding positions. Safety Ed Reed turns 34
next month and skipped minicamp while hinting at retirement.
Quarterback Joe Flacco is entering his fifth year as a starter and
running back Ray Rice is signed to a long-term deal and in his prime.
Anything less than ending the season in New Orleans will be a
Coach John Harbaugh has preached ''finish'' during training camp, the
one thing the Ravens haven't done on the cusp of the game's biggest
stage. This may be their best - and perhaps last - shot at breaking
through in a competitive conference in the midst of a transition.
The Steelers begin the season with eyes on a seventh championship, but
are also dealing with the kind of roster turnover they've largely
avoided during their latest revival.
The Patriots might be the only team in the league nursing a bigger
postseason hangover than the Ravens after the New York Giants stunned
them - again - in the Super Bowl.
Tom Brady's longtime rival Peyton Manning left Indianapolis for Denver,
where the Broncos believe the four-time MVP's surgically repaired neck
is strong enough to get them back to the Super Bowl for the first time
since John Elway was doing his thing.
Houston finally broke the Colts' stranglehold on the AFC South when
Manning sat out last season, and the Texans appear to easily be the
class of that division as long as quarterback Matt Schaub, running back
Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson stay healthy. The Texans
won their first playoff game behind rookie T.J. Yates before falling to
Baltimore in the divisional round.
''The key is that you stay focused on your goals and you stay focused
on the work,'' coach Gary Kubiak said, ''because you never know how
something is going to happen.''
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