In ESPN.com's NFL preview, the Baltimore Ravens were the consensus pick to finish second in the AFC North. I was one of two prognosticators (Ashley Fox was the other) who has the Ravens winning the division for a third straight season, but I was obviously outnumbered on this point. The Cincinnati Bengals are the favorite to win the division. As I put it, The defense is faster and more athletic, and the offense can score points with Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and Torrey Smith. The demise of the defending Super Bowl champions has been greatly exaggerated.
Here is the Intelligence Report that I wrote on the Ravens:
1. Backing up the contract: Most quarterbacks don't have anything to prove after winning a Super Bowl and earning the game's MVP honors. But there's still a chip on Joe Flacco's shoulder, or more specifically, a $120.6 million contract on it. He has to put up more than pedestrian numbers to back up being one of the highest-paid players in the game. In five NFL seasons, Flacco has never thrown for 4,000 yards or more than 25 touchdowns in a season. The Ravens' belief is, with Jim Caldwell remaining the playcaller, Flacco will carry over his spectacular postseason -- 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions -- into the 2013 regular season.
2. Replacing Ray Lewis and Ed Reed: No one is ever going to replace Lewis and Reed as far as what these future Hall of Fame players have meant to the franchise, and the Ravens aren't trying to do that. Baltimore, though, thinks it can replace two great players who were at the end of their careers. Daryl Smith, the all-time leading tackler in Jaguars history and the Ravens' new middle linebacker, has been Baltimore's best defensive player this preseason. Safety Michael Huff is more versatile than Reed and provides more of a physical presence. Plus, Smith and Huff will combine to make $1.7 million this season, which is $13 million less than what the Ravens paid Lewis and Reed last season. The biggest challenge is filling the leadership void.
3. Offensive identity: Are the Ravens going to pass more because of the big-money contract given to Flacco? Or are they going to be a run-first team after the losses of wide receiver Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta? The Ravens' identity is going to be a little of both. A balanced attack isn't a haphazard guess. This is based on what the Ravens did in the playoffs with Caldwell running the show. In the postseason, Flacco dropped back to throw 132 times and the running backs received 128 carries. The two most proven playmakers are Flacco and Ray Rice, and it would be unproductive to take the ball out of either one of their hands for an extended period.
4. Dynamic defensive duo: Over the past six seasons, Terrell Suggs has had one only teammate record more than seven sacks in a season. That's why no one is more excited than the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year over the Ravens landing an elite pass-rusher like Elvis Dumervil in free agency. Since Dumervil entered the league in 2006, his 63.5 sacks are tied for seventh most in the NFL. This addition certainly got the attention of Ben Roethlisberger, Andy Dalton and Brandon Weeden.
5. Receivers need to step up: The Ravens lost more than their top two receivers when Boldin was traded and Pitta went down with a dislocated hip. They also lost their most-clutch receivers. Over the past two seasons, Boldin and Pitta combined for 17 touchdowns in the red zone. Last year, Boldin and Pitta led the team in third-down catches. The pressure to convert inside the 20-yard line and move the chains falls on wide receiver Torrey Smith, tight end Ed Dickson and two recent veteran additions in Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark.