2013-14 NFL Futures: Can the Baltimore Ravens Repeat?

joe-flaccoWhen the 2012-13 NFL season began, most people thought that the Baltimore Ravens would be a competitive team. However, few experts predicted them to be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy last February, especially given the strong seasons that Denver, New England, San Francisco and Atlanta had.

Nevertheless, the aging Wild Card Ravens stormed through the playoffs and on towards the Super Bowl XLVII title. Now the big question remains whether Baltimore can experience Super Bowl success two years in a row.

At this point, most experts aren’t convinced that they’ll become the eighth team in NFL history to repeat as champions. The big reason why is roster turnover since Baltimore has lost a number of key players from last year’s championship squad.

For starters, the team’s best possession receiver, Anquan Boldin, went to the San Francisco 49ers. The offense will also miss starting center Matt Birk, who went out on top by retiring this offseason.

ed-reedLosses on the other side of the ball are even more noteworthy because starting safeties Ed Reed (Houston) and Bernard Pollard (Tennessee Titans) both departed via free agency. Other key players moving on to other teams include linebackers Paul Kruger (Cleveland) and Dannell Ellerbe (Miami Dolphins) as well as cornerback Cary Williams (Philadelphia).

As if all of this isn’t enough, Baltimore lost the heart and soul of their team when franchise legend Ray Lewis retired. No. 52 only played six regular season games and recorded 57 tackles due to a triceps injury. However, he came back for the playoffs and was an inspirational force, helping guide his team to a Super Bowl win. So the question now is what’s left for the Ravens going into this year.

Everything begins with starting quarterback Joe Flacco, who signed a six-year, $120.6 million deal this past offseason. Flacco has always been consistent for the Ravens and put up solid numbers. However, he took things to the next level in last season’s playoffs after throwing for 1,140 yards, 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in four games. Flacco was so clutch that he out-dueled more heralded QB’s throughout the playoffs like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

ray-rice-ravensAnother big piece that’ll be returning for Baltimore is running back Ray Rice. The sixth-year man out of Rutgers has consistently been one of the best rushers in the NFL, and this doesn’t look to change in 2013. He once again turned in a solid regular season after compiling 1,143 rushing yards, 478 receiving yards and 10 total touchdowns.

The receiving corp will be somewhat of a mystery going into the season. Torrey Smith has served as a solid deep threat, having caught 49 balls for 855 yards and 8 TD’s last year. Jacoby Jones is another veteran who’ll be hoping to make an impact on the Ravens’ passing game. He caught 30 passes for 406 yards last year with the Houston Texans.

Recent additions Brandon Stokely (via Denver) and Dallas Clark could also be seeing some passes thrown their way. The latter was signed in an effort to replace injured tight ends Dennis Pitta (hip) and Ed Dickson (hamstring). As for Stokely, the 37-year-old proved to be ageless after catching 45 passes for 544 yards and 5 touchdowns in his lone Denver season.

Elvis Dumervil, John Harbaugh, Don MartindaleMoving to the defensive side, Baltimore has picked up a large number of key additions to replace their losses. Elvis Dumervil landed with the Ravens after his agent made a fax machine error during contract proceedings with the Broncos. Dumervil brings his 11.0 sacks from last season to Baltimore and should once again be a force on the edge.

Other new faces include Chris Canty (New York Giants), Marcus Spears (Cowboys), linebacker Daryl Smith (Jacksonville), safety Michael Huff (Oakland) in addition to draft picks like K-State linebacker (Arthur Brown) and Florida safety Matt Elam.

One more point worth making about the Ravens D is that Terrell Suggs will be healthy this year. Suggs missed a large majority of 2012 with a torn Achilles tendon, but did manage to return for the latter part of the season. Now healthy and playing opposite Dumervil, he should have a fantastic 2013.

Baltimore could feature as many as seven new starters on defense, which is scary when you’re trying to repeat as Super Bowl champions. However, many people think that this team has gotten younger and faster on D.

Last year’s aging core didn’t exactly tear it up in the regular season after finishing 12th in scoring defense (21.5), 15th in sacks (37) and 17th in YPG allowed (350.9). With the diminishment of Reed and Lewis’ athletic ability, it wasn’t going to be long anyways before Baltimore needed to upgrade on defense.

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome is one guy who’s definitely excited about the younger defense that his club will feature. “You have to face the fact the game is changing from an offensive standpoint, with more spread offenses and more read-option,” he said. “You have to become more athletic and you have to have people who can change direction and move and accelerate. I think our moves allow us to play that style of game on defense. And also, with some of our new guys in the secondary, with Matt (Elam), Dig and Michael Huff, we’ve got guys who can match up and play man to man, and that means you don’t have to be substituting all the time.”

There’s definitely been a lot of change and turnover in Baltimore this offseason. However, the team appears confident that they can contend for another Super Bowl title. Of course, pulling off another magical postseason run like last year won’t be an easy task for this club.

Baltimore has been an Extremely Popular Super Bowl Bet

Pretty much everybody doubted the Baltimore Ravens’ ability to make Super Bowl XLVII – let alone get past the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots. However, things have completely changed since people are not only believing in Baltimore now, but also betting on them at sportsbooks.

According to the Los Angeles Times, two-thirds of sports bettors have wagered on the Ravens to beat the point spread. Because of this, the original line of +5 has now fallen to +3 1/2. In a year where NFL playoff favorites have went 8-2 in covering the spread, Baltimore represents the two favorites’ losses.

That said, it’s no wonder why the Ravens are drawing such heavy action. R.J. Bell of Pregame.com discussed this with the LA Times by saying, This is kind of a surprise – 65% of the bets so far have been on the underdog Ravens. That’s very unusual in the NFL.”

While people may be wagering on the underdog, San Francisco is still expected to take home the Lombardi Trophy on February 3rd. But this game certainly won’t be a blowout…at least in our opinion. That said, you can check out our take on the 2013 Super Bowl as well as a final score prediction below.

San Francisco Team Strengths – We’ll start with the first and most obvious factor here: Colin Kaepernick. The second year QB has ignited the 49ers since taking over the starting job. Despite being just a second year player, he’s been especially good in the playoffs after throwing for 496 yards and three TD’s, while adding another 202 yards and two TD’s on the ground. He’s also been sacked just once in the last five games, which should prove difficult for a Ravens pass rush that’s fallen off from greatness.

Another big plus for 49ers is their rushing attack, which features Kaepernick and Frank Gore, who’s rushed for 209 yards and three touchdowns in two playoff games. Considering how Baltimore is giving up 128.3 RYPG during the postseason, we can expect to see San Francisco rush for plenty of first downs.

San Francisco also sports a pretty solid pass rush, led by Aldon Smith and his 19.5 sacks. Expect Ahmad Brooks (6.5 sacks) to apply some pressure in this contest too. One more big strength that the Niners have is their offensive line, which should give Kaepernick plenty of time to throw in his first Super Bowl.

Baltimore Team Strengths – Much of the offensive focus right now is on quarterback Joe Flacco, and deservedly so. Following a solid campaign in which he threw for 3,817 yards, 22 TD’s and 10 INT’s, Flacco has stepped it up a notch in the playoffs. In three postseason outings, the Delaware product has accumulated 853 passing yards, 8 TD’s and no interceptions.

Running back Ray Rice figures to play a huge role in Super Bowl XLVII. He’s a true dual threat as evidenced by the 1,143 rushing yards and 61 catches he had in the regular season. Rice will by far be the toughest dual threat RB that San Francisco has faced this year. When he checks out of the game, the 49ers won’t get much of a break because the backup, Bernard Pierce, is averaging 56.3 RYPG and 6.3 yards per carry in the playoffs.

Kicker Justin Tucker has been pretty clutch throughout the season; he’s made both field goals in the playoffs, and was 30-for-33 in the regular season.

Keep an eye on WR Torrey Smith (855RYDS, 8TD) during the Super Bowl since he figures to be this game’s only true deep threat. Also don’t forget about the emotional boost that franchise linebacker Ray Lewis will provide to his teammates in his final game.

Super Bowl XLVII Prediction: San Francisco 31 – Baltimore 27

The strengths seem to be split pretty evenly among these teams. The Flacco-Kaepernick duel should be quite fun to watch, Frank Gore vs. Ray Rice will be close, and both defenses are pretty solid all-around. However, we think that the offensive line of the 49ers will hold up pretty well against the Ravens’ D-line. Also, look for San Francisco to put more pressure on Flacco than he’s seen in the first three rounds of the playoffs. Protecting Flacco against Indianapolis, New England and Denver was nothing compared to what the Niners will bring.

NFL Power Rankings for January 17th, 2013

Isn’t it amazing what a difference a week can make in the NFL? In our previous power rankings, we were ready to anoint the Denver Broncos as Super Bowl champions three weeks prematurely. But after dropping a shootout against the Ravens, they’re certainly not on top any longer. Denver wasn’t the only favorite to lose either, which turned this week’s power rankings edition upside-down.

1. New England Patriots – The Patriots took care of business last week, just like you’d expect a Bill Belichick team to do. Tom Brady was his usually-brilliant self after throwing for 344 yards, three TD’s and no interceptions. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen combined to give New England a pretty solid running attack too – 123 rushing yards and 2 TD’s on 22 carries. The Patriots will be gifted with another home game thanks to the Broncos loss.

Last Game: 41-28 win over Houston Texans
Next Game: vs. Baltimore Ravens in AFC Championship

2. Atlanta Falcons – Atlanta was on the verge of blowing the largest fourth quarter lead (20 PTS) in playoff history to the Seattle Seahawks. The ‘Hawks actually grabbed the lead with just 31 seconds left on the board after Marshawn Lynch’s go-ahead touchdown. But Matt Ryan was able to connect on two long passes and set Matt Bryant up for a game-winning field goal with 8 seconds remaining. So is this scare going to inspire the Falcons to play better, or serve to foreshadow another blown fourth-quarter lead against San Francisco this week?

Last Game: 30-28 win over Seattle Seahawks
Next Game: vs. San Francisco 49ers in NFC Championship

3. San Francisco 49ers – Colin Kaepernick never looked phased as he out-dueled reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers during an offensive explosion. Kaepernick ran for 181 yards, which is a playoff record for quarterbacks, and he added another 263 yards through the air. More importantly, the second-year QB scored four total touchdowns for San Francisco and led them to victory. Can he duplicate the same feat and survive another road matchup against the Falcons? It’s certainly not out of the question.

Last Game: 45-31 win over Green Bay Packers
Next Game: at Atlanta Falcons in NFC Championship

4. Baltimore Ravens – Many times, you find out what a team is truly made of when the postseason comes around. And that’s exactly what we’re finding out about the Baltimore Ravens, who’ve won two games we didn’t think they would. Joe Flacco saved his best football for when the Ravens needed it most after throwing for 331 yards, three TD’s and no interceptions against the Broncos. Plus he hit Jacoby Jones for a 70-yard touchdown with just 31 seconds left to force overtime. Baltimore will definitely need more of the same from Flacco if they’ve got any chance of beating the Patriots at home.

Last Game: 38-35 double (OT) win over Denver Broncos
Next Game: at Denver Broncos in AFC Championship

5. Denver Broncos (Eliminated) – Denver’s defense played pretty strong throughout the regular season, but couldn’t seem to find an answer against the Ravens. Peyton Manning had his usual strong game (290PYDS, 3TD), but made a mistake in overtime by throwing across his body; the pass was picked off by CB Corey Graham to give Baltimore the ball at midfield. A few runs later, Justin Tucker nailed a game-winning field in the second OT to complete the upset. Now Peyton has all offseason to kick himself after an otherwise incredible year.

Last Game: 38-35 double OT loss to Baltimore Ravens

6. Seattle Seahawks (Eliminated) – Nobody was hotter than Seattle heading into the playoffs. Unfortunately, the odds were stacked against them with having to play every postseason game on the road. Even with this being said, they came extremely close to capping off a 20-point fourth quarter comeback against the Falcons. Next year should offer plenty of promise for the Seahawks because they return offensive stars QB Russell Wilson and RB Marshawn Lynch. If Seattle can upgrade their receiving corps, prepare to watch Wilson really take off!

Last Game: 30-28 loss to Atlanta Falcons

7. Green Bay Packers (Eliminated) – In what seemed like a muddled NFC, many experts were picking Green Bay to make the Super Bowl. However, their defense wasn’t as strong as everybody thought; the Pack surrendered over 440 total yards to Niners QB Colin Kaepernick and 579 yards overall. Bolstering the defense will definitely be the focus as Green Bay heads into this offseason. As for their running game, maybe the Cheeseheads have found a reliable option in undrafted rookie DuJuan Harris.

Last Game: 45-31 loss to San Francisco 49ers

8. Houston Texans (Eliminated) – After starting out 11-1, Houston had aspirations of making the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance. But the way the Texans ended the regular season – which included losing three out of the last four games – may have cost them a real title shot. This no doubt hurt after losing the AFC’s top seed and being forced to play New England on the road. Defensive injuries definitely played a part in Houston’s demise, which made stopping Tom Brady and Co. that much tougher. Staying healthy will be the big challenge for the Texans next year because the talent is there.

Last Game: 41-28 loss to New England Patriots

For descriptions on the following eliminated teams, check out our previous power rankings.

9. Washington Redskins

10. Minnesota Vikings

11. Indianapolis Colts

12. Cincinnati Bengals