by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Remember former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips, talking about his team ready to “kick down the door" to the AFC championship after knocking on it for a couple of years in the late ‘70s when trying to bypass the almighty Steelers?

Well, if Bum’s Oilers were going to “kick down” the door (which they were never able to do), the present-day Baltimore Ravens might be ready to resort to a commando raid on the same in order to finally get back to the Super Bowl.

John Harbaugh’s Ravens have sure done enough knocking at the AFC title gate the past four seasons. As the only team to win a playoff game each of those campaigns, Harbaugh’s Baltimore has also twice advanced to the precipice of the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance since the 2000 season, qualifying for the conference title games in both 2008 and a year ago. While most accepted that it might have been a bit too early for the ‘08 side, operating with a then-rookie QB Joe Flacco, to advance to the Super Bowl, the 2011 Ravens were hardly in a mood to console themselves after blowing a golden chance to beat New England in the AFC championship game last January.

The opportunity was there in the final moments at Foxborough, first when WR Lee Evans had an apparent TD pass stripped away at the last second, and then when PK Billy Cundiff flubbed a chip-shot FG attempt that would have forced overtime. Losses do not get much more bitter than that 23-20 setback to the Patriots. And legit opportunities to get to the Super Bowl are no guarantee in the future.

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While the 2012 AFC race shapes up as a wide-open one, at least the Ravens can say that they have as good a chance as anybody to finally get back to the pinnacle. Las Vegas oddsmakers have made them co-favorites (along with the Steelers) to win the AFC North, against whose teams Baltimore did not lose against for the first time a year ago. Priced at 13/10 to win their division, the Ravens are also among the conference favorites, rated behind only the Patriots and Texans (who were beaten in last year’s playoffs at M&T Bank Stadium) to win the AFC at 7/1.

Baltimore is also in the upper-tier of contenders to win the Super Bowl, priced at a tempting 16/1 to bring home the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Meanwhile, season-win prices sit at 10 at most Nevada wagering outlets.

The Ravens have much the same look as they did a year ago, with most of the key performers still in place, but there are a couple of alterations of note that could impact Baltimore’s chances to not only defend its AFC North crown, but also get back to the Super Bowl. Interestingly, most of the key adjustments are being made on the defensive side, where the Ravens might have to do some scrambling to stay as rock-ribbed as they’ve been most of the past decade.

Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano took the Indianapolis Colts’ head-coaching job in the offseason, with a few free-agent Baltimore defenders (including DE Cory Redding and S Tom Zbikowski) following Pagano to Lucas Oil Stadium. New d.c. Dean Pees, a longtime defensive aide at a variety of NFL locales (including a 4-year stint as Bill Belichick’s d.c at New England) and a onetime Kent State HC, was promoted from LB coach to succeed Pagano.

Pees, known for meticulous film study and a cerebral approach, will prove a slight departure from the more-animated Pagano, but has made it clear he won’t be making much more than minor changes to the Ravens’ aggressive 3-4 scheme. He has, however, been forced to make some personnel tweaks, partly due to the status of star OLB Terrell Suggs (right), whose offseason Achilles tendon tear (perhaps suffered during a pick-up basketball game...stick to H-O-R-S-E next time, Terrell) might keep him out of action for the entire season.

The Ravens, already looking to fortify their OLB positions in the offseason after Jarret Johnson’s FA defection to San Diego, had spent their first-round draft choice on Alabama OLB Courtney Upshaw. At the time, it appeared as if Upshaw and holdover Paul Kruger were going to battle to fill Johnson’s shoes. Now they’re being asked to also compensate for the likely absence of the playmaking Suggs (who recorded a whopping 14 sacks and forced seven fumbles a year ago), potentially giving the Baltimore “D” a much different (and perhaps downgraded) look on the edges from a year ago.

Without the impactful Suggs, it is safe to say that Baltimore might have problems matching last year’s No. 3 ranking in total defense, as well as first place in the red-zone and the second-ranked on third downs.

Although the platoon should still rank among the nastiest in the league, there are a couple of other concerns that remain unanswered as the preseason moves along. The Ravens could use a pass rush upgrade from a year ago; perhaps 2nd-year DE Pernell McPhee (left, dragging down Browns QB Colt McCoy last December), who recorded six sacks in a situational role a year ago, becomes a full-time force. Depth on the line could also be impacted by the broken ankle suffered in the Atlanta preseason opener by DE Ryan McBean, who was already facing a suspension for the first three regular-season games. Punishing DE Haloti Ngata played at less than 100% throughout most of 2011 as he dealt with a painful thigh injury.

Moreover, MLB Ray Lewis, though still the emotional leader of the platoon, has slowed down at 37 years of age and was targeted on passing downs a year ago. Though still formidable, Lewis is not the force he was a decade ago.

We admit to be nitpicking a bit, but the Ravens need to be analyzed in the context of a Super Bowl contender, not a rebuilding situation like the Rams or Jaguars. Any slippage from a year ago, especially on the defensive side, will make it harder for Baltimore to finally break through that AFC title game ceiling.

And, in truth, there are still far more plusses than minuses on the stop unit, especially with CB Lardarius Webb enjoying a breakthrough 2011 when recording eight picks (three of those in the postseason), while Bernard Pollard emerged as a hard-hitting enforcer at strong safety. Then there’s veteran FS Ed Reed (right), still one of the best big-play defenders in the business.

But for the first time in memory, it’s offense that has Ravens fans more excited, especially the progress of fifth-year QB Flacco, who has steadied himself as one of the most-reliable signal-callers in the league. Moreover, after the near-miss last January at Gillette Stadium, “Delaware Joe” cannot be blamed (as he had been in past years) for the Ravens missing their latest Super Bowl chance. Flacco, remarkably consistent stat-wise the past few years (passing yardage of 3613, 3622, and 3610, respectively, the past three seasons), is now considered good enough to get Baltimore to the promised land.

Having lacked big-time receiving targets, Flacco also looks as if he might finally have one in ex-Maryland wideout Torrey Smith (right), who hinted at much bigger things as a rookie when catching 50 passes at better than 16 yards per reception. A legit deep threat, Smith is likely to move ahead of vet Anquan Boldin (not getting the separation from DBs as he did earlier in his career) as Flacco’s preferred downfield weapon.

Moreover, RB Ray Rice has emerged as one of the league’s most dynamic all-purpose threats, gaining 2068 yards from scrimmage a year ago to lead all of the NFL while running behind bruising all-pro FB Vonta Leach, who never met a linebacker he didn’t want to demolish. A pleasant surprise in training camp has been Western Kentucky rookie RB Bobby Rainey, a whirling dervish who looks a good bet to make the squad and provide an occasional change-of-pace from the north-south Rice.

In combination, Flacco-Torrey Smith-Rice likely gives the Ravens a sharper-edged “O” than the often blunt-edged versions from the past couple of seasons. As long as o.c. Cam Cameron fills the gap created by by the FA departure of G Ben Grubbs to the Saints, the line should hold its own and help give Baltimore the chance to outscore foes, rather than merely suffocating them with defense, to make another Super Bowl run.

If there is one area, however, that could prevent the Ravens from reaching their ultimate goal, it could be on special teams, especially the subpar coverage units which ranked low in kickoff and punt coverage and allowed three return TDs last season and prompted the signing of special teams-ace Corey Graham from the Bears in the offseason. PK Cundiff, not the most reliable last year when missing nine FG tries, could also be haunted by that last-second, hooked playoff miss vs. the Patriots.

Spread-wise, the Ravens have mostly hovered around the .500 mark since Harbaugh’s breakthrough 2008 campaign, and M&T Bank Stadium has surprisingly not been a pointspread plus the past few seasons (Baltimore just 7-9-1 vs. the line at home since 2010). The Ravens, however, have offered a bit better spread value on the road lately (Harbaugh 9-5 vs. points last 14 away).

Summary...Baltimore remains a viable Super Bowl contender, and we suspect it again looks the best in the AFC North, especially having overcome its Steelers bug-a-boo by beating Pittsburgh twice a year ago. But subtle developments determine whether a team can make it to the “Supe” or not, and Terrell Suggs’ likely absence and Ray Lewis’ diminishing powers hint at potential regression on the Raven defense, which might make it a bit tougher for Baltimore to reach its ultimate goal.

Joe Flacco and the offense have upgraded over versions of a few years ago, but they might have to improve just a little bit more if the Ravens really want to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time in a dozen years (can it be that long since 34-7 over the Giants?).


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