2012 Record: 10-6

2012 Breakthrough

Unflappable Flacco
Of the 22 quarterback performances in the 2012 playoffs, in just eight instances did a quarterback throw zero interceptions. Lo and behold, only Joe Flacco did it more than once. As a matter of fact, he went spotless in all four games that the Ravens played.

Although Flacco completed just 57.9 percent of his passes through the postseason (73 for 126), his stat line boasted 1140 yards (285 YPG), 11 touchdowns, and that goose egg in the pick column. In all, his passer rating for the postseason: 117.1.

The eleven other quarterbacks who started in the playoffs each threw at least one interception. Every quarterback that lost threw at least one in their elimination game. Both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady threw two in the game that knocked them out, both against the Ravens. As far as elite stretch runs go, Flacco's may be among the all-time best.

Clutch Second Half Play
The old adage, "It's not how you start, but how you finish," comes to define many teams, particularly the 2012 Super Bowl Champions. After losing the lead once to a tie against Indianapolis, the Ravens cruised to a 24-9 lead. After that, they won two straight with their backs to the wall.

Tied 21-all with Denver at the half, a cat-and-mouse game ensued with Denver leading 35-28 in the waning seconds. A 70-yard Flacco bomb to Jacoby Jones tied it with under a minute to go, and Baltimore won by three in double OT, after forcing a Manning pick.

Down 13-7 at halftime in New England, the Ravens outscored the Patriots 21-0 in the second half to win 28-13, and forced three timely turnovers along the way. Against the 49ers, the big stonewall at the end of the fourth, up 34-29, all but sealed the Lombardi Trophy.

2013 Projected Wins: 9.5

Top 3 Rookies
-Matt Elam, S (1/32): It'll be hard to replace Ed Reed's turnover Houdini-ism, but Elam's run-stopping capabilities will help make up for a number of lost talents.

-Arthur Brown, LB (2/56): Like Elam, has to work to replace iconic figures; makes up for Ray Lewis' exit by being a mental-chess player with wise snap instincts.

-Brandon Williams, DT (3/94): Adept at both pass and run-stopping, but is also deficient in both categories at times, thanks to a bulky, top-heavy build.

Other Moves
It's a bit daunting when six defensive starters from the Super Bowl, plus Paul Kruger, have all left. Ray Lewis retired, three quarters of the secondary (Reed, Bernard Pollard, Cary Williams) have new homes, Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe cashed in with the Browns and Dolphins respectively, and Ma'ake Kemoeatu remains available.

In an arduous attempt to rebuild the defense, Elvis Dumervil and Marcus Spears bring flexibility to Dean Pees' 3-4 setup. Chris Canty adds a punishing rush to a still-dangerous line, and Michael Huff brings experience to the safety position.

As for in-house upkeep, Flacco received a six-year extension worth over $120M, which was the NFL's richest deal until Aaron Rodgers trumped it. Bryant McKinnie re-signed for two years, and breakout tight end Dennis Pitta signed his franchise tender.

Potential Starting Lineup
QB - Joe Flacco
RB - Ray Rice
FB - Kyle Juszczyk
WR - Torrey Smith
WR - Jacoby Jones
TE - Dennis Pitta
LT - Bryant McKinnie
LG - Kelechi Osemele
C - Gino Gradkowski
RG - Marshal Yanda
RT - Michael Oher

DE - Chris Canty
NT - Terrence Cody
DT - Haloti Ngata
OLB - Terrell Suggs
ILB - Jameel McClain
ILB - Arthur Brown
OLB - Elvis Dumervil
CB - Lardarius Webb
CB - Corey Graham
FS - Michael Huff
SS - Matt Elam

K - Justin Tucker
P - Sam Koch
LS - Morgan Cox

2013 at a Glance
An old adage that professional wrestling icon Gorilla Monsoon would utter goes, "It's easier to win the championship than to hold onto it." For the Baltimore Ravens, 2013 stands to provide the club with a challenge befitting of the big ape's words.

While the Ravens can't lose the title in any regular season loss, they need to remember that playoffs are not guaranteed. Six of the last fifteen champions failed to qualify for their playoffs, and that includes two go-arounds for their arch-nemesis, the 2006 and 2009 Steelers.

Last year's champion Giants didn't make it in either. New York had a rough second half of the season, perhaps foretold by the Giants being the first champion to lose their opening game since the 1999 Broncos.

Still, at least the Giants got to be home for that.

A scheduling quirk with the Baltimore Orioles leads to the Ravens playing their kickoff weekend game on the road, the first defending champion to do so since the 2003 Buccaneers.

While the defense shares very little of the DNA it had last year, or even in previous years, the offense mostly looks the same. Other than trading Anquan Boldin to the 49ers, watching Matt Birk retire, and cutting Vonta Leach, of course.

Flacco still has his two ultra-deep threats in Smith and part-time dancer Jones, plus Pitta and Ed Dickson were both re-signed. The musical chairs around the offensive line puts McKinnie back on Flacco's blindside. Over the past couple of seasons, the Ravens are 17-5 with McKinnie playing left tackle.

Rice was one of three players last year with 1000 rushing yards and 400 receiving yards (joining CJ Spiller and Doug Martin).

Amazingly, counting the postseason, Rice only had five 100-yard rushing performances in 20 games (4-1 in those games). Rice ran just 257 times, his lowest total since his 254 in 2009.

On the other hand, Flacco finally broke any notions of being a glorified game manager these past couple seasons, throwing for 542 and 531 attempts respectively, his two highs.

Of the Ravens spartan 13 interceptions last season, 10 came from players no longer with the team. Only Graham (2) and Webb (1) remain.

That will be the defense's biggest challenge: providing pressure. Even last year, Baltimore had slipped from previous-year expectations. With 37 sacks to go with the 13 picks, the Ravens ranked a mere 17th in the league in sack/pick ratio on pass plays.

Without Reed there to make his timely turnovers, and without Lewis to be the driving motivational force, the Ravens are rolling the dice with a cobbled-together all-star group with Huff, Dumervil, Canty, and Spears aiding Ngata and Suggs.

2012 was the first season for the Ravens since 1997 in which their points-scored rank (tenth) was better than their points-allowed rank (twelfth). With the defense trying to find a new identity with its icons gone, look for the gap to widen in favor of the offense.

With the in-flux D, the Ravens are in danger of joining the "Super Bowl Hangover" club of missing the playoffs the following year. I can see them getting in, but just barely. This was a team with a flair for the moment that is going to have to get used to its new limbs.

Prediction: 10-6