BALTIMORE, MD - OCTOBER 16: Arian Foster #23 of the Houston Texans runs the ball against Ray Lewis #52 of the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on October 16, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
The Baltimore Ravens were the 2011 AFC North Champions. They came close to representing the AFC in the Super Bowl.
These facts are, as they say, undisputed.
in the NFL, you're either growing or you're dying. I'm not suggesting Baltimore is a bad team or they're not capable of winning 10+ games again, but look at their offseason. Did they improve their team?
There's something to be said for internal improvement, true, and they have talent at most positions. But in what way are they getting better? I'm hearing nothing but great things about the Steelers' draft class, and their main challenge is amongst themselves, not their opponents. Wallace is in a contract year, Brown and Sanders are both looking strong, the offensive line is revamped, could be the most athletic defense they will have put out there in some time (Tomlin coaches athletes, that's his MO). I can't say Pittsburgh will walk away with the division, but I see more improvement from last season there than I do in Baltimore.
And keep in mind, just like a few years Pittsburgh beat Baltimore out, they tied at the top of the division, and Baltimore won the tie-breaker on a last-second play. The difference in those two teams was far less than Baltimore likes to admit.
Pittsburgh would have struggled to beat any team on the road in the condition they were in for the Wild Card Round. Health is just as much a part of a championship team as anything else. They didn't have it. But how well did Baltimore play against Houston? Did the Ravens peak in time for the playoffs?
In all fairness, I thought the Ravens' divisional round and conference championship games were poorly play by all three teams involved. In fact, Houston would have beaten both of those teams if they had better quarterback play. Credit to Joe Flacco and Tom Brady, who made plays in their respective games to help their teams win, but T.J. Yates was easily the worst quarterback in the AFC playoffs last season. Houston's last three drives, down 20-13, Yates threw two interceptions and failed to convert on 4th and short.
Flacco didn't have the turnovers, but was equally futile in moving the ball. The Ravens couldn't run the ball (tough to do against Houston) and had 227 yards total. TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY SEVEN YARDS. How often does that get you 20 points if you're playing a reasonably talented quarterback? Houston turned the ball over four times, and still matched Baltimore with 63 plays. The Ravens were 4-for-16 on 3rd down. Not to take anything away from Houston's defense, which was one of the best units in the NFL last season, but the Ravens didn't win that game as much as they allowed the Texans to lose it. Which Yates did. Spectacularly.
Against New England, 51 Ravens players did enough to secure a win. One failed to secure a pass and one lived out the ultimate nightmare for any player in any sport.
Making it to two consecutive conference championships is an anomaly. The Jets advanced in both 2009 and 2010, lost both games and missed the playoffs in 2011. Pittsburgh defeated the Jets, and the Packers defeated the Bears in 2010, neither Pittsburgh nor Green Bay won a 2011 playoff game.
It's not impossible, but recent history shows how difficult it is to reach the summit and stay there, especially when you can't quite get to the top. Baltimore certainly has the talent, but with an improved division and a first-place schedule, they'll need more than just health to again stand at the top of the AFC North.