Season preview: Ravens poised to take next step in crowded AFC

Posted Aug. 29, 2012, at 6:11 p.m.

Two years, two close calls, and two long offseasons pondering “what if” for the Baltimore Ravens.

What if Billy Cundiff hadn’t missed that chip-shot field goal against the Patriots in the AFC championship game eight months ago, the one that would have sent it to overtime? What if Baltimore’s usually reliable defense held onto that seemingly comfortable 14-point halftime lead over the hated Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round the year before that?

In a league that rarely offers second chances — let alone third ones — the Ravens find themselves still searching for that Lombardi Trophy to bookend the one linebacker Ray Lewis led them to a dozen seasons ago.

Time is running out.

Lewis is 37 and noticeably slimmer but he’s already logged 222 games at one of football’s most demanding positions. Safety Ed Reed turns 34 next month and skipped minicamp while hinting at retirement. Quarterback Joe Flacco is entering his fifth year as a starter and running back Ray Rice is signed to a long-term deal and in his prime.

Anything less than ending the season in New Orleans will be a disappointment.

Coach John Harbaugh has preached “finish” during training camp, the one thing the Ravens haven’t done on the cusp of the game’s biggest stage. This may be their best — and perhaps last — shot at breaking through in a competitive conference in the midst of a transition.

The Steelers begin the season with eyes on a seventh championship, but are also dealing with the kind of roster turnover they’ve largely avoided during their latest revival.

The Patriots might be the only team in the league nursing a bigger postseason hangover than the Ravens after the New York Giants stunned them — again — in the Super Bowl.

Tom Brady’s longtime rival Peyton Manning left Indianapolis for Denver, where the Broncos believe the four-time MVP’s surgically repaired neck is strong enough to get them back to the Super Bowl for the first time since John Elway was doing his thing.

Houston finally broke the Colts’ stranglehold on the AFC South when Manning sat out last season, and the Texans appear to easily be the class of that division as long as quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson stay healthy. The Texans won their first playoff game behind rookie T.J. Yates before falling to Baltimore in the divisional round.

“The key is that you stay focused on your goals and you stay focused on the work,” coach Gary Kubiak said, “because you never know how something is going to happen.”

AFC EAST

Perhaps no player took New England’s late collapse against the Giants harder than Brady. Coming off another typically brilliant regular season, Brady was the last Patriots player in uniform in a dejected locker room after a fourth Super Bowl ring vanished. At 35, the window is starting to close on his Hall of Fame career. The offense remains dangerous as long as he’s around, though the real issue will be if New England’s defense can improve after finishing 31st in yards allowed and crumbling in the final moments against Eli Manning.

The New York Jets were among the NFL’s most disappointing teams last fall, sliding to 8-8 as quarterback Mark Sanchez threw a season-killing 18 interceptions and opponents stopped fearing “Revis Island.” New York traded for Tim Tebow in the offseason hoping the charismatic if erratic quarterback can make an impact both on the field and in the locker room. Sanchez remains the starter and appears to have kept his sense of humor. He joked the team was saving all its touchdowns for the regular season after the Jets went three straight exhibition games without reaching the end zone. The joke will be on Sanchez and coach Rex Ryan if New York takes another step back.

The Buffalo Bills got off to a hot start a year ago behind quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Then the team signed the QB to a contract extension and immediately started to get buyer’s remorse. Buffalo went 2-8 after Fitzpatrick signed the six-year, $59 million deal. He’ll need to start earning that paycheck this season, and the Bills have opened their wallets for their defense, signing end Mario Williams to give a toothless defense some bite.

The Miami Dolphins blew things up for the second time in five years, bringing in Joe Philbin as coach and giving the starting quarterback job to rookie Ryan Tannehill. To add a little appeal to a franchise that has ceded the local spotlight to LeBron James and the Miami Heat, the Dolphins signed wide receiver Chad Johnson and let HBO film its popular “Hard Knocks” training camp series with the team. The camera crew lasted longer than Johnson, perhaps a sign the Dolphins realize their problems are not a quick fix.

AFC NORTH

Lewis slimmed down during the spring hoping to keep his body fresh. Consider the weight Lewis shed now firmly on Flacco’s shoulders. The 27-year-old who once proclaimed himself the best quarterback in football will need to play like it at times for Baltimore to excel. The aging defense will miss the presence of linebacker Terrell Suggs, out indefinitely after tearing his right Achilles tendon while playing pickup basketball.

Pittsburgh remains among the most stable franchises in the NFL, but even they aren’t immune to change. In addition to the retirement of wide receiver Hines Ward and the release of linebacker James Farrior — who have a combined four Super Bowl rings — Pittsburgh let go offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and brought in former Kansas City coach Todd Haley. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger likened the transition to Haley’s offense to learning a new language. He’ll need to get fluent in a hurry behind an injury marred offensive line.

Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis has made a habit out of turning seemingly untenable situations into playoff berths, doing it a year ago with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green. Yet consistency has never been the team’s trademark. The Bengals have made the postseason in consecutive years only once in franchise history.

The Browns borrowed a page from rival Cincinnati’s book by going with 28-year-old rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden and third overall pick Trent Richardson at running back. The Bengals rode that kind of combination to the playoffs. The Browns would love to ride it to somewhere in the vicinity of .500. Yet Richardson spent part of the preseason dealing with a knee issue that could linger into September, and there are plenty of questions about who Weeden will throw to.

AFC SOUTH

The Texans could finally exhale after more than a decade of building — and rebuilding — landed them in the playoffs. They’ve got so much depth atop such a lackluster division they could stay there a while. Foster is among the league’s best running backs and Schaub was in the midst of a career year before being brought down by injury.

Tennessee nearly tracked down the Texans in the final month of the season despite a lackluster performance from running back Chris Johnson as “CJ2K” became “CJBarely1K.” The Titans hope to remain tight on Houston’s heels behind second-year quarterback Jake Locker, whose mobility gives Tennessee’s offense an added dynamic that could take pressure off Johnson.

The Indianapolis Colts felt so certain about Andrew Luck they hit the reset button on the entire franchise. Manning is gone. So is the coaching staff that took the team to the Super Bowl in 2010. The precocious Luck has looked like a wise investment during the preseason, showing the poise of a player far beyond his 22 years. Having the likes of Reggie Wayne around helps.

Jacksonville owner Shahid Khan is a master marketer who wants to pump some life into the beleaguered Jaguars and is so eager to do it he committed to playing four “home” games in London, one a year starting in 2013. At some point he hopes his team’s play on the field — and not it’s travel schedule — is headline worthy. It just won’t be this season.

AFC WEST

Norv Turner continues to survive in San Diego despite seemingly diminishing returns. The Chargers woefully underachieved a year ago, as a series of injuries and a midseason slump allowed them to get Tebowed out of the postseason. Philip Rivers tried to largely do it himself, with woeful results. He tossed a career-high 20 interceptions; a healthy TE Antonio Gates should provide a return to normalcy. San Diego addressed its needs on defense by signing linebacker Jarret Johnson and using its first three draft picks on defensive players.

Kansas City made a stunning fall from a 2010 playoff run due to a series of injuries that gutted the roster. Running back Jamaal Charles, quarterback Matt Cassel, safety Eric Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki are all healthy. Having Romeo Crennel — as placid as former coach Haley was fiery — should keep the Chiefs on an even keel; so should a user-friendly schedule in the second half of the season.

The sight of Manning wearing orange and blue is going to take some getting used to. Manning felt confident enough in Denver’s ability to compete for a title he spurned offers from other teams — Arizona most notably. Going from Tebow to Manning is one of the most dramatic QB changes in recent memory. The Broncos will need to adapt quickly to be a threat in a tightly packed division.

The Oakland Raiders are so confident in Darren McFadden’s health they didn’t stop reliable backup Michael Bush from fleeing to Chicago. New coach Dennis Allen is trying to restore a sense of discipline to a franchise that largely ignores the trait. Quarterback Carson Palmer went 4-5 as the starter, but didn’t have McFadden in his backfield. Allen’s defense could help a defense that struggled in 2011. Still, Palmer will have to throw the ball eventually, and the Raiders haven’t had a true No. 1 receiver since Randy Moss.

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