Originally written on The Sports Headquarters  |  Last updated 7/30/12

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 10: Kicker Billy Cundiff #7 of the Baltimore Ravens attempts to tackle Darius Butler #28 of the New England Patriots during the 2010 AFC wild-card playoff game at Gillette Stadium on January 10, 2010 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

2011 in a Nutshell: 12-4 AFC North Champions; Lost AFC Championship

They say one picture is worth a thousand words and that image of Billy Cundiff is what most people will use to summarise the Ravens 2011 season. Down 23-20 with 11 seconds left, Cundiff is lining up a chip shot field goal that will send the game to overtime with momentum squarely on the Ravens side, the kick sails wide left and the Ravens season ends there & then. Despite that heartbreaking end to the season there were plenty of positive signs to take from that season. Baltimore swept their fierce rivals Pittsburgh for the first time in a long time on their way to a 12-4 record and another division title. Joe Flacco also showed several great signs of growth with the biggest highlight for him coming in Pittsburgh, in primetime as he threw a perfect touchdown pass to rookie Torrey Smith to win the game.

2012 Season Motto: One More Game

Personnel Performance

The biggest question following the Ravens playoff exit was whether or not Billy Cundiff would be retained following his miss that ended the season. In an admirable show of faith, Cundiff is back to atone for his mistake and it appears he has the full support of his teammates. During free agency the Ravens decided to show faith in the group that performed so well last year with only a couple of minor additions to the squad, the most notable being Houston’s wide receiver/punt returner Jacoby Jones who can add a spark to the passing and return games (assuming he can hold onto the ball). He will be asked to replace Lee Evans who was not re-signed after his old deal expired. Running back Ray Rice was rewarded for his stellar play so far with a 5 year; $35 million contract to replace his franchise tag deal, a fair prize for a player who posted career numbers last season with 1364 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns.

Baltimore’s vaunted defense took some hits in free agency however with some contributors moving onto (what they hope) are bigger and better things, be it a possible championship or bigger pay cheque depending on their priorities. Cornerback Chris Carr has gone to the Minnesota Vikings while linebacker Jarret Johnson has signed with San Diego. Neither of these players were superstars but they were good examples of how the Baltimore system was able to get the most of physically gifted players. Johnson’s absence should be easily covered this year by the Ravens first draft pick, Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw whom they took at number 35 overall after trading down. Upshaw should slide into the Ravens scheme will little to no trouble and be able to post sacks before long either. The rest of the Baltimore draft was dedicated to filling out the back end of the roster with players who can provide immediate depth and be potential starters in the long term.

Key Player(s) for 2012: Ray Lewis (ILB) and Ed Reed (S)

Despite the additions and growth of the team’s offense, Baltimore’s identity remains firmly entrenched with its defense and they will determine how far this team goes. With all that being said the fact remains that the key players on defense are getting older and older. Ed Reed always seems to be thinking that he is playing in his last season and with the neck problems hampering his ability to tackle, can he continue to contribute at a high level? If any quarterback is ballsy enough to try and see if Reed has truly declined in his mid-30’s is still taking a huge gamble. One of the most passionate players in the league, Ray Lewis still has that fire burning inside of him despite being one of the oldest players at his position. Going into year 17 of his hall of fame career, Lewis has made his name as a hard-nosed inside linebacker but even with his new, slimmer physique you have to wonder how a 37 year old Lewis will go when he is asked to cover someone like Rob Gronkowski or Heath Miller on a seam route. If these two players are able to operate at a high level despite their advanced years then the defense should be able to carry the team for another season.

Season Expectations

Forecasting a team’s fortunes is next to impossible since it’s so hard to anticipate the unexpected things like injuries so the only way to go is off what is known right here and now. Until the Ravens defense dramatically slows down and I can see it for myself, I believe that they will be a force to be reckoned with and should slow down even the best of offenses. If Ed Reed and Ray Lewis aren’t able to play at the level fans are used to then look for playmakers to emerge elsewhere. Haloti Ngata appears to be the next in line in terms of leaders on the Ravens defense having wreaked havoc among offensive linemen for seven years now. In the defensive backfield Ladarius Webb has grown into one of the more effective corners in the league after being forced into significant action last year due to injuries. his improved play earned him a rich six-year, $50million contract which he will now have to live up to. All things considered, the talent and athleticism on this Ravens defense looks very scary.

The key man for the Ravens on offense remains as Ray Rice who was the biggest offseason story surrounding the team this year. After being slapped with the franchise tag things looked like they could turn hostile between the two parties however the situation was salvaged when the two sides reached a 5 year, $40million deal right before the deadline. Rice certainly earned his payday with impressive production over the first four years of his career but now he needs to back it up in the “what have you done for me lately” NFL. For so long, backs that get a big payday seem to struggle in the following season so Rice will need to prove that the money won’t change his work ethic or production. His teammates should be able to help Rice by continuing to grow when passing the ball. Quarterback Joe Flacco is now entering that make or break stage of his career. A three year starter, he now has to take more responsibility in the running of the offense, especially with the weapons on offer. Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith present very different threats, Boldin can run short and intermediate routes and use his body to create throwing windows while Smith can get behind just about anyone. Baltimore also added some help in the slot with Houston’s explosive return man Jacoby Jones who can be a big threat, when he can catch the ball.

Baltimore’s schedule certainly looks tough, division rivals Cincinnati and Pittsburgh will be tough assignments as well as drawing the NFC East and AFC West as part of their rotation this year, add to that the 2011 division winners New England and Houston and you have the makings of a challenging year. While the week 3 primetime matchup with New England will be most appealing, the toughest stretch comes between weeks 13 and 16 where they face the Steelers (for the second time in three weeks), travel to Washington to face RGIII before a Manning double at home as Peyton then Eli visit Maryland.

Final: Will they be better or worse off than last year?

Getting 12 wins and a division title last year was an achievement and this Ravens squad certainly has the talent to go back to back. A tough schedule will make things more difficult but 11 wins looks like their benchmark for this year which should be more than enough to compete for a division title again.

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