By this point in July, there's a palpable sense of anticipation for the upcoming season in every NFL city. Hope is in full bloom across the landscape of the league as we creep within days of the opening of training camps. A touch of football fever is definitely in the air.
But with the possible exception of the singular hype-fest that has engulfed the New York Jets this offseason, perhaps nowhere are expectations as sky high as they are in Baltimore, where a bigger and bolder statement of 2010 intentions seems to get tossed out every few days or so.
And not just by fans who obsess over the Ravens every move. Some key Ravens themselves are doing the talking, and it's hard not to notice the building drumbeat of belief in Baltimore.
"Anything less than a Super Bowl win, really, is a disappointment for us,'' veteran Ravens receiver Derrick Mason said in a recent radio interview. "I think we've done more than enough over the last three years to put ourselves in position to win a championship. To do all we've done and not come out of this thing with a championship would be disheartening, especially for me because I'm looking at one, two years tops before I leave.
"I know a lot of the older guys on this team want to win a championship before they hang their cleats up. I just feel we are primed, and put together a great team. This is our opportunity to win a championship.''
And then last weekend there was this from Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, arguably the most pivotal piece in the equation if the 2010 Ravens are to take a step up in weight class and win themselves a trip to Dallas in early February.
"I'm pretty excited, and I want to say it's the best team I've been on,'' Flacco told the Baltimore Sun. "We've got the talent to go as far as we want to.''
OK, so the "best team I've been on'' stuff sounds a little silly coming out of the mouth of a mere third-year player, but that doesn't mean I happen to think he's wrong. I believe this will be the best of head coach John Harbaugh's three Ravens teams, and that's no small accomplishment when you consider the following:
-- Only two teams in the NFL have won playoff games in each of the past two postseasons, Baltimore in the AFC and Arizona in the NFC.
-- All three of the Ravens' playoff wins under Harbaugh have come the hard way, on the road -- at Miami and Tennessee in the 2008 season, and at New England in 2009. No other team in the league owns more than two road playoff wins over that span (Philadelphia and the Jets).
-- Baltimore won 20 games the past two regular seasons, but both times it was forced to go the wild-card route of the sixth and final seed in the AFC playoff field, losing to the eventual conference champion each time (at Pittsburgh in 2008 and at Indianapolis in 2009). Let the Ravens improve their standing in the AFC North just a tad, and watch out come the postseason.
The rest of the AFC isn't about to step aside and make way for the coronation of the Ravens, of course. The Colts, Chargers, Jets, Bengals, Steelers and Patriots and Titans will be heard from. But there are a couple things that really make me believe some of the hype surrounding Baltimore is legit. First off, there are those three road playoff wins the past two Januarys.
Is there anything tougher in sports than going on the road in the NFL playoffs and winning? For my money, maybe not. The Ravens have done a lot of growing up and gained a host of valuable experience in the past two postseasons, and I think there's a payoff to come for the accomplishment of playing those five tough playoff road games in such a short span, winning three times.
The victory at Miami got your attention. Upsetting the No. 1-ranked Titans in Nashville was a stunner. But that utter domination of New England in Foxboro, where the Ravens simply imposed their will on the vaunted Patriots all day long, that was the kind of the win that told you something about how this Baltimore team was made. It's tough, resilient and won't shrink from playing a big game on the big stage because of the out-sized expectations that come along with it.
Granted, the Ravens did not play their best ball in losing the 2008 AFC title game at Pittsburgh, or that 2009 AFC divisional round game at Indianapolis. More than anything in those games, they looked like a spent road team that had exhausted itself just getting there. And don't forget Baltimore had to win in Week 17 at Oakland just to squeak into the postseason last year, meaning it was playing what amounted to back-to-back-to-back road playoff games at Oakland, at New England and at Indy in a three-week span.
I can't really say if the Ravens are a cocky bunch heading into this season, but I do perceive a deep sense of confidence has been born out of where they've been and what they've done the past two seasons. They know they haven't yet accomplished anything truly significant, but they've laid some important groundwork for chasing the game's ultimate prize. They've learned how to win games under pressure late in the season, against any opponent, no matter where they're played. Those type of skills usually come in very handy and steel a team during some future title run.
Another reason to be bully on Baltimore this season is the blend of promising youth and veteran star power that the roster features. Check the makeup of almost every championship club and you'll see a mix of ascending players who are just entering or are in their prime and a healthy dose of still-productive veterans who know how to get the job done. That's usually the ingredients for winning, and the emergence of the younger stars is nicely balanced by the sense of urgency that the veterans feel in the pursuit of a ring. As the 14th-year veteran Mason so succinctly put it, the time is now for a good portion of the Ravens roster. And everybody wearing purple and white knows it.
So on one side of the locker room you have the likes of Flacco, the 25-year-old franchise QB who's just approaching his best years, multi-faceted third-year running back Ray Rice, second-year offensive left tackle Michael Oher, fourth-year standout guard Ben Grubbs, and key young defensive stalwarts like defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and linebacker-defensive end Terrell Suggs (who's still only 27). And at the proverbial other end of the spectrum are future Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis (35), Mason (36), center Matt Birk (34 this week), defensive end Trevor Pryce (35 next month), safety Ed Reed (31), and 33-year-old defensive tackle Kelly Gregg. They know the years are numbered and this is probably their last best shot.
That's the perfect match in the NFL. Young talent still on the rise and older pros who can still play and play at a high level. The young players in Baltimore seem to know how important it is for the older guys to take one more run at a Super Bowl and they want to hold up their end of the bargain. As for the veterans, they're smart enough to know that it's the Ravens young stars like Flacco, Rice and Ngata who will likely help carry them across the finish line.
If you remember, something along the lines of that same formula worked pretty well for Baltimore in 2000, when the franchise won its only Super Bowl title. Back then, Lewis, running back Jamal Lewis, tackle Jonathan Ogden, cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Duane Starks, and linebackers Jamie Sharper and Peter Boulware were the team's young stars. But the Ravens roster was infused with key veteran leaders like Rod Woodson, Shannon Sharpe, Tony Siragusa, Trent Dilfer and Michael McCrary.
This year, with the high-profile addition of receiver Anquan Boldin, 29, as well as other useful veterans like Donte' Stallworth, defensive end Cory Redding, quarterback Marc Bulger, kicker Shayne Graham and second-round picks Sergio Kindle and Terrence Cody, the Ravens roster looks deeper and more well-balanced between youth and experience than any in recent memory. But the value of having so many key young players with a significant dose of playoff history already under their belts can't be overstated. That's the stuff championships are made of.
Baltimore's path to bigger things starts within its own division. The Ravens lost three times to the Steelers (including the playoffs) in 2008, and twice to the Bengals last year. Both years they finished a game out of the AFC North lead and had to take the much tougher wild-card road through January. A division title, a higher seed and maybe even a first-round bye should make for easier playoff sledding for Harbaugh's club, and that means taking care of business against the Bengals and Steelers in the regular season.
That's job one for Baltimore this year, and really the only thing the Ravens should be focused on between now and New Year's Day. But you have to like what you see coming together so far in Baltimore. And hearing the Ravens themselves do most of the big talking only tells me there's good reason for all that hope in the air.