After years of being blocked by a treacherous course, the Baltimore Ravens finally have a clear path to a championship, though it's a window of opportunity that may not be wide open for very long.
The first three years of the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco era in the Charm City have produced a pattern that's been both encouraging and frustrating at the same time, with the Ravens reaching the postseason and winning at least one playoff game in each of those seasons before ultimately having their Super Bowl plans derailed by a difficult road test caused by an inability to win their division.
That most burdensome hurdle was cleared with this season's edging of the Pittsburgh Steelers -- the team that's been the most responsible for Baltimore's failure to capture both an elusive conference crown and a playoff home game under the current regime -- for the AFC North title, giving the Ravens an avenue that appears quite favorable to achieve the goals of glory that have evaded the franchise since its memorable steamrolling of the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV more than a decade ago.
The Ravens will be the second seed in what's essentially a three-team battle royal with the Steelers and New England for the 2011 AFC championship. Injuries, primarily at the quarterback position, have rendered upstart Houston a notch below that power trio, while it's hard to consider a youth-laden Cincinnati squad that hasn't beaten an eventual playoff participant or a feel- good Denver outfit that's been challenged to complete a forward pass as serious contenders in this year's race to the throne.
So with the pretenders now established, here are four reasons why the Ravens should be viewed as the favorites to represent the AFC in Indianapolis next month. And wouldn't that be the ultimate irony, having the city that stole Baltimore's beloved Colts in the undercover of the night over a quarter-century ago play host to the team that replaced them in its first chance to hold a Super Bowl?
- They're battle-tested. Much has been made of the Ravens' tendency to struggle against lower-level competition on the road this season, as evidenced by inexplicable losses in places like Jacksonville and Seattle. Baltimore has always shown up for the big games on the schedule, however, and its 6-0 record against 2011 playoff teams attests to that fact. And the pivotal comeback victory in Pittsburgh back in November should put to rest any notion that the Ravens are incapable of knocking off an elite opponent away from home or that the highly-scrutinized Flacco can't get it done in crunch time.
- The Patriots may be a paper tiger. New England's AFC-best 13-3 record was as much a product of suspect competition as the sustained brilliance of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, as not a single one of those wins came against a team that ended above .500 and its lone victim among this year's postseason entrants was the dubiously-credentialed Broncos. Victories over the New York Jets, Philadelphia and Dallas haven't carried near as much weight as previously thought after all of those exposed underachievers finished 8-8, and remember that the Pats were handed early playoff exits on their home turf in each of the past two years by foes that could exploit their glaring deficiencies. With a 4,000-yard passer at quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger and one of the league's stingiest defenses, Pittsburgh also possesses the potential to exploit New England's weaknesses if those teams face off in next weekend's Divisional Round.
- A sense of urgency. Having had to reach the playoffs as a Wild Card in each of the last three seasons, the Ravens should be well aware of their more advantageous position in this year's tournament. And with nine current starters 30 years old or above and a few cornerstone players (including running back Ray Rice) set to hit unrestricted free agency at season's end, Baltimore may not get a better chance than it has now to make a Super Bowl run.
"You see these young kids that come in this business, and they don't really understand how hard it is to win a Super Bowl," said Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, the MVP of Super Bowl XXXV. They don't understand how everything has to be in place, how your health is a big issue. That's the thing that I try to tell these young guys. We have the team to do it now. We don't have too many more excuses."
- The Ravens are better than the Steelers. Sure, there's the well-worn adage about how difficult it is to beat a team three times in one season, but Baltimore's two wins over Pittsburgh were certainly no fluke. And if the two bitter rivals do indeed renew acquaintances in the playoffs, having the contest held at M&T Bank Stadium -- where the Ravens went 8-0 during the regular season and have prevailed in 18 of their last 19 games -- is an obvious plus. So is a running game that's been a big factor down the stretch for the Ravens, whereas the Steelers have been inconsistent in that department and won't have top back Rashard Mendenhall for any of the postseason.
As for the NFC, we'll hold off a closer examination until next week's column in hopeful anticipation of two very intriguing semifinal games. Assuming red-hot New Orleans takes care of business in its First-Round clash with Detroit, that will set up a terrific matchup of contrasts between the high-scoring Saints and defensively-minded San Francisco, while the winner of Sunday's Atlanta-New York Giants clash should provide some quality competition for Super Bowl favorite Green Bay.
Until then, enjoy the games in what's traditionally one of the most enjoyable weekends on the NFL schedule.
NFL POWER POLL
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Closed out a mediocre overall regular season with fittingly ordinary results a week ago, having correctly tabbed 10 of the 16 outright winners on last Sunday's schedule and compiling a 7-8-1 record against the spread. The yearly numbers compute to a 156-100 (.609) ledger in straight-up predictions and a 119-128-9 (.482) mark with the line involved, with both totals ending below my 2010 performance levels.
Cincinnati (9-7) at Houston (10-6), Saturday, 4:30 (NBC) (Houston -3)
Storylines: AFC South champion Texans to make first postseason appearance in franchise's 10-year history and earned conference's third seed, while surprising Bengals claimed AFC's final spot to reach playoffs for second time in three years and first as a Wild Card entry since 1975...First-ever postseason matchup of rookie quarterbacks since 1970 merger, with T.J. Yates ready to go for Houston despite dislocating non-throwing shoulder in regular- season finale and Andy Dalton leading Cincinnati into Reliant Stadium...Yates threw for career-best 300 yards and two touchdowns to lead Texans to 20-19 road ousting of Bengals on Dec. 11, with Houston rallying from 16-3 halftime deficit and Yates tossing go-ahead scoring pass with two seconds left to play...Wide receiver Andre Johnson (hamstring), tight end Owen Daniels (knee), cornerback Johnathan Joseph (ankle) guard Mike Brisiel (fractured fibula) also probable for Texans, who have lost three straight following Week 14 win in Cincinnati and dealt 23-22 home setback to Tennessee last Sunday...Bengals became first team in league annals with a rookie 3,000-yard passer (Dalton) and 1,000-yard receiver (A.J. Green), but fell to 0-7 against 2011 playoff participants after 24-16 home loss to Baltimore in Week 17 and own just one victory over opponent that finished with winning record (Tennessee)...Cincinnati also hasn't registered a playoff victory since 1990 season...Houston defense finished regular season second in total yards allowed (285.7 ypg), third against the pass (189.7 ypg) and fourth in both points permitted (17.4 ppg) and run defense (96.0 ypg)...Texans outgained Cincinnati 412-285 in total yards in last month's meeting, but Bengals scored 10 points off four Houston turnovers.
Fast Fact: Saturday's game will be the first AFC playoff contest held in Houston since Jan. 16, 1994, when the Joe Montana-led Kansas City Chiefs registered a 28-20 win over the Oilers in a Divisional Round clash held at the Astrodome.
Prediction: Texans ride their tried-and-true formula of running the football and playing stifling defense to extend their historic season another week. Texans 20, Bengals 16.
Detroit (10-6) at New Orleans (13-3), Saturday, 8:00 (NBC) (New Orleans -10.5)
Storylines: Battle between two of league's most explosive offenses, with NFC South champion Saints establishing NFL season records for total yards (7,474) and passing yards (5,347) and resurgent Lions setting team marks for total yards (6,337) and points (474) en route to first playoff appearance since 1999...Also first head-to-head bout of 5,000-yard passers in league history, with New Orleans' Drew Brees amassing new season standard of 5,476 yards and Detroit's Matthew Stafford (5,038 yards) surpassing plateau with 520-yard, five-touchdown performance in 45-41 loss at defending world champion Green Bay last Sunday...Third-seeded Saints extended current win streak to eight games with 45-17 home thrashing of Carolina in Week 17, giving team 8-0 mark at the Superdome this season...New Orleans averaging 41.1 points per game at home in 2011 and cruised to 34-17 victory over Lions at the Superdome on Dec. 4, with Brees amassing 342 passing yards and three scores to lead way...Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (suspension), cornerback Chris Houston (knee) and safety Louis Delmas (knee) all missed that game for Detroit, but all three starters slated to play in rematch and running back Kevin Smith (ankle) also probable...Wide receiver Lance Moore (groin) and tight end John Gilmore (toe) both doubtful for Saints, while club placed running back Mark Ingram (toe) and linebacker Will Herring (knee) on injured reserve Tuesday...Lions wideout Calvin Johnson topped NFL in receiving yards (1,681) during regular season after racking up career-best 244 on 11 catches against Packers.
Fast Fact: Lions are 1-9 in playoff games during the Super Bowl era and have lost five straight postseason tilts since a 38-6 triumph over Dallas in an NFC Divisional Round tussle held on Jan. 5, 1992.
Prediction: Lions will hit for some big plays and won't be intimidated by the big stage, but defense isn't going to prevent Brees and his skill players from lighting up the Superdome scoreboard once again. Saints 41, Lions 24.
Atlanta (10-6) at N.Y. Giants (9-7), Sunday, 1:00 (FOX) (N.Y. Giants -3)
Storylines: Giants set up first-ever postseason meeting between teams by winning last two games, including 31-14 besting of rival Dallas at MetLife Stadium this past Sunday to earn NFC East title and conference's No. 4 seed...Falcons claimed fifth playoff seed with 45-24 verdict over hapless Tampa Bay in Week 17 combined with Detroit loss at Green Bay, and making third postseason trip in last four seasons...Atlanta 0-2 in playoffs under head coach/quarterback combo of Mike Smith and Matt Ryan, however, and had four turnovers and just 194 total yards in 48-21 throttling by Green Bay as top seed in 2010 NFC Divisional Round...New York making first playoff appearance since 2008 and own 4-3 postseason mark under head coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning...Both Manning (4,933 yards) and Ryan (4,177) set franchise season marks for passing yards in a season in 2011, while Giants wideout Victor Cruz finished third in league with club-record 1,536 receiving yards...New York defensive end Osi Umenyiora probable despite ankle sprain and recorded two sacks against Cowboys in return from four-game absence due to injury, but tight end Jake Ballard (knee) questionable for Giants...Linebacker Stephen Nicholas doubtful for Falcons with toe injury, but cornerback Brent Grimes (knee) expected to play...Atlanta running back Michael Turner rushed for season-high 172 yards last week, while Giants yielded year-low 49 yards on the ground in finale...New York tied for third in NFL with 48 sacks, with Pro Bowl end Jason Pierre-Paul (16 1/2) fourth among individuals in that category.
Fast Fact: Falcons had won five consecutive road games against the Giants prior to a 34-31 overtime loss at the Meadowlands during the 2009 regular season.
Prediction: Giants benefit from being in a virtual playoff mode for season's final two weeks, and Ryan's postseason problems continue at the hands of New York's furious pass rush. Giants 31, Falcons 27.
Pittsburgh (12-4) at Denver (8-8), Sunday, 4:30 (CBS) (Pittsburgh -9)
Storylines: Broncos earned first AFC West title and playoff invite since 2005 despite 8-8 record and three straight losses to close out the season, and became just fifth team to make postseason after starting out 2-5 or worse...Reigning AFC champion Steelers earned fourth playoff berth in five-year span with second straight 12-4 campaign and won 10 of final 12 games following 13-9 edging of Cleveland last Sunday...Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to play despite sore ankle, and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) and guard Doug Legursky (shoulder) also probable for Steelers...Pittsburgh leading rusher Rashard Mendenhall out for playoffs after tearing ACL last week, however, and safety Ryan Clark to miss Sunday's test due to sickle-cell trait that can cause negative body reaction in high altitude...Broncos lost starting guard Chris Kuper to season-ending broken leg in 7-3 loss to Kansas City in Week 17 finale, while safety Brian Dawkins (neck) and fullback Spencer Larsen (knee) both doubtful this week...Denver led NFL in rushing yards (164.5 ypg) and had 216 against the Chiefs, but quarterback Tim Tebow completed just 6-of-22 passes for 60 yards in loss and has thrown four interceptions over last two games...Steelers finished atop league in total defense (271.8 ypg), points allowed (14.2 ppg) and pass defense (171.9 ypg), and held five of final six opponents under 10 points...Teams have squared off six times previously in postseason play, with series knotted at 3-3...Broncos just 3-5 at Sports Authority Field this season.
Fast Fact: The winner of the six prior playoff encounters between these teams has reached the Super Bowl five times, with the 1997 Broncos and 2005 Steelers both capturing that season's Lombardi Trophy one game after defeating this week's opponent on the road in the AFC Championship.
Prediction: Steelers' recent inconsistency on the offensive end will keep it interesting, but you can't resort to gimmicks against a team as experienced and disciplined as Pittsburgh and expect to win. Steelers 20, Broncos 13.