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7. Season in review: Baltimore Ravens

Statistically the Ravens weren't that impressive, yet boy were they tough. 

The Ravens, like their vaunted middle linebacker leader, are a physical, gritty and determined bunch that don't back down from any challenge. Over the past 5 years, the Ravens have nearly always hovered as a top team, especially in the AFC.

In fact since the 2006 the Ravens have lost to the eventual AFC super bowl representative each year except one. The teams are as follows.

- 2006, the Ravens lost to the super bowl champion Colts.

- 2007, the Ravens missed the playoffs.

 - 2008, the Ravens lost to the Super bowl champion Steelers.

 - 2009, the Ravens lost to the super bowl runner-up Colts.

 - 2010, the Ravens lost to the super bowl runner-up Steelers.

Apparently, if you beat the Ravens in the playoffs, good things will happen. What is also evident is that the Ravens are a damn good football team and have been knocking on the super bowl door for quite some time now. 

The Colts will always be the Ravens major enemy for leaving Baltimore, but the Ravens are starting to develop quite a mean-spirited rivalry with their nemesis the Pittsburgh Steelers as well. Every year the Ravens and Steelers slug it out for divisional supremacy and every other year it seems like, the two sides battle for a third time in the playoffs. 

So far Pittsburgh seems to have the Baltimore's number and once again, when it mattered most  Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers were able to hold off the Ravens quest to represent the AFC. 

Always the bridesmaid and never the bride may define the Ravens of late, but I for one wouldn't want to be in that bridal shower with Ray Lewis and company. They are a rugged bunch. 

Season in Review: The Ravens proved their worth as an elite team

The sign of an elite team is that it doesn't lose any 'bad' games. More than anything else, focus determines winners. Almost every team has talent so its those that can avoid mental lapses during a grueling season that are the teams that rise to the top and advance. This year, Baltimore proved they were worthy of elite status. The Ravens lost 4 regular season games by a combined 16 points (or 4 ppg). 3 of those losses were at the hands of New England, Atlanta (both on the road) and Pittsburgh. Their one bad loss to Cincinnati was before the Bengals imploded and given the strength of Baltimore's schedule and their own quality wins against Pittsburgh, Miami, Tampa Bay, New Orleans and the Jets, one subpar loss is certainly excusable. 

The Ravens were a tough out and continued what has been the NFL's best rivalry in recent years with Pittsburgh, splitting the home and home and narrowly losing in the playoffs. 

As a fan, there is a lot to like about the Ravens. Week in and week out the team shows up to play and does so with an unrivaled passion and intensity. The offense finally has weapons to compliment the defense making the Ravens one of the most complete and exciting teams to watch. 

Now if they could only get over the championship game hump. Had the Ravens been in the NFC, they would have had at least 4 super bowl appearances by now.

Offseason Momentum: High but the window is closing

Offensively the team is just hitting their peak. Unfortunately on the other side of the ball the window of opportunity is closing fast. The heart and soul of the team and it's core identity for the past dozen years, the Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are aging. Although showing no signs of slowing down, Ray Lewis is 36 and fellow first team all-pro defender, free safety Ed Reed will be 33 by the start of the season.

These guys mean more to their team than anyone one else in the league save for Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. When they retire, the Ravens defense will probably have to be completely overhauled and while the offense is preparing for that day, everyone knows that it cannot carry the Ravens to a championship just yet. The Ravens are defense and will need their defense for another title run.

However as long as Lewis and Reed continue to play at the level they are accustomed to, the Ravens have to be one of the favorites to reach Indianapolis next February. 

Joe Flacco is a dynamite young quarterback who is ready to ascend into the upper echelon elite stratosphere of quarterbacks and Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin are dynamic playmakers in their own right. 

A strong line (except when facing the Colts) an elite passer, high-powered offensive weapons, a solid red zone target tight end in Todd Heap and a still ferocious and feared defense means spirits are high in Baltimore.

Offseason Anxiety: Ray Lewis' age, the decline of the defense in general

At some point, Ray Lewis' skill set has to diminish. The guy is truly incredible but he can't go on like this forever. After 14 seasons at one of the most grueling positions, he has to eventually slow down. And while 5 straight pro bowl nominations and 3 straight All Team selections hint that he isn't done yet, whenever Ray Lewis finally does show he is human after all, the Ravens defense and locker room leadership will suffer greatly.

In the mean time, Baltimore needs to address the issue of why the rest of the unit isn't playing to expectations or its reputation. It is weird watching the offense, which has played second fiddle to the defense for so long, be forced to win games. Reed and Dawan Landry roam the middle of the secondary, but need help on the outside. Cornerback was an issue last year and needs to be addressed by the front office this offseason. Similarly, Haloti Ngata (and Terrence Cody as his backup) is the premiere nose tackle in the game yet receives little help from the end positions. 

If Baltimore can shore up a once impenetrable defense, they may be finally ready to climb the last hurdle and reach the super bowl.

Draft desires: A lot of ways the Ravens could go with the pick

The Ravens have many options and several needs. GM Ozzie Newsome could continue to look towards the offense and provide Flacco with more playmaking receivers to further aide his development, or he could build the defense back up as well. 

Based on recent years, the guess is that Newsome will acquire another receiver through free agency or a trade similar to how Anquan Boldin or T.J. T. J. Houshmandzadeh were brought in. The reason makes sense for 2 reasons. The first, the receivers already are NFL tested and don't have to undergo a learning curve with Flacco and secondly, that defensive rookies can make more of an immediate impact, especially with Ed Reed and Ray Lewis as mentors. 

Another area of need is offensive tackle. Michael Oher of "The Blindside" fame, is a more natural right tackle. He was decent on the left side last year, but with such a relentless pass rush in the AFC North, 'decent' won't suffice. 

Therefore, the Ravens may pick a left tackle such as Mississippi's OT Derek Sherrod or Colorado's Nate Solder, who teams say can be transformed to play the left side as well.

Then in round two, the Ravens can address defense. Because the Ravens are still hopeful about the return of pass rushing specialist linebacker Sergio 'I read from my' Kindle, GM Ozzie Newsome will probably look for depth (and a possible replacement for Landry) at safety. Ahmad Black from Florida or Quinton Carter from Oklahoma would be value picks at 58.

If Ozzie Smith and the Raven's recent track record is any indication, whoever the Ravens draft is bound to be a success. Smith might be making a run for the title of the Bill Polian of old.  

Free Agent Farewells: Several key players

Jared Gaither, T. J. Houshmandzadeh, Dawan Landry, Le'Ron McClain,  Fabian Washington, Marshal Yanda and even Donte Stallworth either have or all do figure prominently into the Raven's plans.

Landry and Washington are probably the top two concerns but that should not diminish the contributions of the others.

Jared Gaither would be a nice fit for the Colts on the offensive line if Baltimore were to let him go. 

Threat to the Stampede: The highest of any team

Every time we play the Ravens I squirm nervously before the game thinking, that this time the Ravens will beat us and every time I am wrong. The Colts own the Ravens. For some reason, no matter how well the Ravens have been playing, what our records may be or how tough the defense is supposed to be, Peyton Manning has Ray Lewis' number and Dwight Freeney records at least 2 sacks. Most of the games aren't even close. It just doesn't make any sense. In Indy or Baltimore, playoffs or the regular season, we someone always find a way to win. Yet each following game, I am nervous as the last. 

Its like the nervous tension that hurricane season inspires. Every time you hear of a tropical storm, you get nervous. Why? Because even though category 5 type hurricanes may come 1 every 500 storms, the impact they have and the devastation they bring is frightening and enough to raise the alarm. That is the Ravens. They are the category 5 storm that constantly peters out before it reaches land. One of these times, it is going to hit the Colts' straight on.

We very well may play the Ravens twice this year. Let's just hope when the storm finally comes, it doesn't hit during the playoffs.