NEW ORLEANS -- Having snapped the NFC's three-year Super Bowl winning streak, but continued the NFL's recent trend of seeing a lower-seeded hot team ride postseason momentum all the way to the parade-planning stage, the Baltimore Ravens stand astride the football world today.
We should be getting used to this by now. Once again, the No. 4-seeded Ravens reminded us that in the NFL playoffs, everybody has a shot, as long they make the dance. Baltimore lost four of its last five regular season games following a sterling 9-2 start, but that was a mere head feint, designed to lull the rest of the league to sleep. When it came time for the postseason sprint, Baltimore was ready, averaging 31 points per game in their 4-0 run, while rolling to convincing 15-point victories over the Colts and Patriots and three-point squeakers against the Broncos and 49ers">49ers.
The Ravens' 34-31 win over San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVII marked the fifth time in the past eight years the NFL's biggest game was claimed by a team that started the playoffs seeded in the lower half of their conference's postseason bracket, meaning either the No. 4, No. 5 or No. 6 seed. The Ravens joined the 2005 Steelers (No. 6), the 2007 Giants (No. 5), 2010 Packers (No. 6) and 2011 Giants (No. 4) in that distinction. In each case, the eventual champion knocked off a No. 1 or No. 2 seed to claim their prize.
How much of a longshot were the 10-6 Ravens at the beginning of the playoffs? Coming out of the AFC as they did was a real rarity. Consider this: They are the first AFC champion to win fewer than 11 games in a non-strike regular season since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. So it's not just the NFC that can give rise to the late bloomers any more, and that means hope all around in Roger Goodell's 32-team fiefdom.
Baltimore has an NFL-high streak of five consecutive playoff trips, all in the John Harbaugh coaching era, which coincides with the arrival of newly minted Super Bowl MVP quarterback Joe Flacco. There's plenty of reasons to be confident the Ravens' perennial contender status will continue into the foreseeable future. They have perhaps the finest front office in the game, led by general manager Ozzie Newsome, and they've got some talent and youth at key spots like quarterback, running back, receiver, tight end, cornerback and kicker.
But there's some obvious age on defense, where one Hall of Famer-to-be, Ray Lewis, is retiring and another, safety Ed Reed, may be departing via free agency. The Ravens have some sizable salary cap challenges to grapple with this offseason, but Newsome always has a plan of attack and players generally lean toward hanging around in Baltimore, where the atmosphere is conducive to winning. We'll see if winning a Lombardi helps or hurts those efforts.
With the confetti dropped and the long NFL season finally over for everyone, here's a snapshot look at how the two Super Bowl teams stand as they head into the personnel acquisition phase of the league's calendar.
The final 2013 cap has yet to be determined, but expectations are for it to remain essentially flat, rising ever so slightly to the range of $121 million next season after being at $120.6 million in 2012. That's going to pose problems for the Ravens, even if they will realize a $4.35 million cap savings with Lewis' retirement. Estimates put Baltimore in the range of $107 million of committed cap charges for next season, and that's not including the boatload of money that has to be set aside for quarterback Joe Flacco, who just pulled off the NFL equivalent of going to Vegas and rolling nothing but sevens all night long.
Eligible for free agency, Flacco will be franchised if the two sides can't come to a long-term deal (and talks have been essentially a stalemate since the preseason). But Baltimore likely can't even afford to gamble and put the $14.6 million non-exclusive tag on Flacco, because a QB-needy team might just decide that price tag plus two first-round picks is a bargain for a reigning Super Bowl MVP who is 28 and will be entering only his sixth NFL season in 2013. The Ravens' only completely safe choice will be to apply the exclusive franchise tag on Flacco, a move that could tie up roughly $20 million in the one-year deal.
Baltimore has too many other cap issues to contend with to sink that kind of money into just one player, so the most likely scenario is for Flacco to receive the exclusive franchise tag, but then use the leverage that it brings to earn a long-term deal that provides the Ravens 2013 cap relief.
Where to begin? Because Baltimore has some work to do all over its roster in order to keep this championship club together. Flacco's situation is obviously the biggest piece of the puzzle to contend with, but there are plenty of others that will require attention.
Reed, who made $7.2 million in 2012, may be someone the Ravens can't really afford going forward. It'll hurt to lose the 11-year veteran, but Reed's body doesn't figure to hold up much longer given his punishing style of play, and Baltimore won't pay a 34-year-old big money and sacrifice young, in-their-prime players in the process. Players like linebackers Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and cornerback Cary Williams are all scheduled to reach unrestricted free agency, and the Ravens won't allow emotion and the feel-good ending to 2012 cloud their decision on Reed.
With Lewis gone, Ellerbe probably becomes the priority player to keep among those three. He plays inside and is one of the Ravens' more underrated talents. Kruger had a breakout postseason, and performed well enough when Terrell Suggs was injured and out of the lineup this season, but Baltimore did draft outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw last year as a potential replacement.
The Ravens have to restructure some veterans' contracts in order to give themselves options with their own free agents, and the three players most likely to be targeted for restructures are Suggs (a 2013 cap number of $13 million-plus) defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (more than $11 million) and receiver Anquan Boldin (more than $7.5 million). Boldin once was thought to be a potential cap casualty this offseason, but his magnificent playoff run (four touchdown catches in four games) likely changed all that. The Ravens simply can't afford to lose his play-making presence, and he'll likely see a contract extension offer to turn a big chunk of his 2013 salary into signing bonus, in exchange for cap relief.
Fullback Vonta Leach may be one valuable player Baltimore has to sacrifice in the coming cap squeeze. He's one of the best in the game at what he does, but given that he only sees about 25 snaps per game, with the fullback position becoming more endangered in the NFL every year, his $4.33 million cap number next season may be too rich for the reality of the Ravens' situation.
On the restricted free agent front, Baltimore must protect its interests with tenders that ensure tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson don't get away, as well as valuable reserve defensive end Arthur Jones.
The Ravens already made their big move in early December, firing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and elevating quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell to the OC role. Caldwell hit that opportunity out of the park, and head coach John Harbaugh recently gave him the fulltime gig for 2013. Another season like this one for Baltimore's offense, which responded so well to Caldwell's play-calling instincts, and it's hard to fathom the former Colts head coach won't have his own team to lead once again in 2014.
The Ravens also added former Eagles defensive coordinator and longtime offensive line coach Juan Castillo to their staff in mid-January. He was a consultant the past two weeks, but now will start his new job as the team's running game coordinator with the start of the offseason.
There has been media speculation that Ravens linebackers coach Ted Monachino is on the radar screen of new Eagles head coach Chip Kelly, who is seeking a defensive coordinator. But Monachino, 46, said during Super Bowl week that he has not been contacted by any NFL team about a job opening, and some close to the situation say there is no indication Monachino is Kelly's choice or will be leaving Harbaugh's staff.
The Ravens always seem to find talent in the latter stages of the first round, and this time around they'll own that prized No. 32 selection, the spoils, so to speak, of their Super Bowl championship. Might be a good slot to look for Reed's replacement, given that it's thought to be a draft laden with talent at safety. Linebacker would figure to be another area of draft need, depending on how Ellerbe and Kruger's situations turn out in free agency. The bottom of the first round is usually where quality inside linebackers (like Ellerbe) come off the board. Manti Te'o, anyone?
There are all kinds of intriguing possibilities to choose from in terms of the Ravens playing host to the NFL's annual kickoff game on the Thursday night of Week 1. New England is scheduled to play at Baltimore next year, and that would make for a rematch of the past two AFC title games. Green Bay is another visitor to M&T Bank Stadium in 2013, and that game would pit two of the past three Super Bowl champions. How about the Ravens against reigning NFL MVP Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings? That's another high-profile pairing there for the taking (and televising nationally). And you can never really go wrong with a renewal of the twice-a-year Pittsburgh-Baltimore rivalry.
It's a very challenging home schedule that awaits the Ravens, one of the best home teams in the league the past five years. Baltimore faces the AFC East and the NFC North next season, and five different playoff teams from 2012 make the journey to Charm City: the Patriots, Packers, Vikings, Texans and Bengals. The highlight of the road schedule is a return to Denver, the scene of Baltimore's dramatic double-overtime divisional-round upset of Peyton Manning and the Broncos. I'm sure Mr. Manning will have that one circled in orange on his calendar.
San Francisco 49ers
After losing the NFC title game last season and the Super Bowl this season, the 49ers have the salary cap flexibility and the talent nucleus to keep Jim Harbaugh's team mostly intact and take another shot at completing their climb to Super Bowl glory in 2013. It's not as if San Francisco is issue-free this offseason, but most of the tasks on the 49ers' to-do list look manageable.
The 49ers are projected to be comfortably under the expected $121 million cap, and there's even more room to be made with a few anticipated moves. First off, of course, is the Alex Smith situation. The veteran quarterback has no interest in returning as Colin Kaepernick's backup, and it's expected the 49ers will try to trade him to a quarterback-needy team like the Chiefs or Browns rather than release him and receive nothing in return. What's not known yet is whether any team will deal for him without him agreeing to lower or re-work his scheduled $8.5 million salary in 2013 as part of the trade.
The other major cap decision will be whether to franchise All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson for the second season in a row, at $7.45 million for one year this time around, or try to sign him to a long-term contract extension and lessen his 2013 cap implications. The 49ers would likely have to restructure a veteran contract or two in order to easily fit a franchised Goldson under their cap.
There's no dismantling of the defending NFC champions on the horizon. All nine of San Francisco's Pro Bowl picks are under contract for next season, and obviously the 49ers are in control of Goldson's status with the franchise tag available. The biggest names among San Francisco's impending free agents are receiver Randy Moss, nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, reserve defensive end Ricky Jean Francois, return man Ted Ginn Jr. and backup tight end Delanie Walker.
Moss said during Super Bowl week he would like to return for another year in San Francisco, and 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh indicated the feeling was mutual. But Moss had a disappointing Super Bowl showing after a low-impact regular season, even though the chances of his re-signing are probably boosted by the reality that starting receiver Mario Manningham is in the midst of a rehabilitation from knee surgery.
You have to wonder if San Francisco has the stomach for another ride on the David Akers rollercoaster. The veteran kicker was a calamity at times in 2012, and he's due a $3.6 million salary next season. The 49ers would save more than $3 million in cap room by releasing him. Starting center Jonathan Goodwin, an 11-year veteran due more than $5 million next year, is another potential cap casualty.
The big picture is pretty rosy in San Francisco. The 49ers still have a good mix of youth and experience, with one of the game's most dynamic young quarterbacks in Kaepernick and a defensive front seven capable of dominating games at times. They're going to lose some talent off this 13-5-1 team that boasted 15 first-round picks, but not much. There are more strengths than weaknesses on the San Francisco roster, and Jim Harbaugh doesn't seem like the type to rest or relax until he has a ring or two on his hand.
To be sure, Harbaugh and his fellow coaches didn't do their best work in the 49ers' sloppy Super Bowl loss, but they remain one of the better staffs in the league. And with most every job opening already filled during the NFL's hiring season, any changes on tap look to be minimal. 49ers defensive backs coach Ed Donatell has been mentioned as a candidate for the vacant Eagles defensive coordinator job under Chip Kelly, but there are no strong indications he's the front-runner for the job. San Francisco linebackers coach Jim Leavitt, the former University of South Florida head coach, would be another logical candidate for the Philly opening, given he has defensive coordinator experience at the collegiate level.
Whatever defections and losses the 49ers do suffer this offseason, they seem well positioned to make up for them in the draft. San Francisco holds the 31st pick in the first round, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. The 49ers are expected to wind up owning 14 picks in April's lottery, thanks to 2012 draft trades and compensatory picks anticipated to come their way.
All that draft capital gives San Francisco the ammo it needs to move up after a player it covets, or to parlay some of its chips into even more selections down the road. If there's a position or two that figures to get addressed this April, the defensive line makes the most sense at the top of the list. With both nose tackle Sopoaga and 3-4 defensive end Francois potential free agent losses, San Francisco drafting for depth up front is likely. Especially since Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith is 33, and suffered some health issues toward the end of his 12th NFL season.
Another potential need got exposed in the Super Bowl, with strong safety Donte Whitner having a terrible game on the big stage. Cornerbacks Carlos Rogers, Tarrell Brown and Chris Culliver didn't distinguish themselves either, and it wouldn't be surprising to see San Francisco pour more resources into that part of the depth chart. When the 49ers front seven doesn't dominate, San Francisco's back four can look pretty darn average.
The 49ers will have a long road to get back to the Super Bowl next season, with emphasis on the word "road.'' Not only will they travel all the way to London in Week 8 to take on Jacksonville at Wembley Stadium, they'll make a long trip to Florida (at Tampa Bay), another to Eastern time zone Washington, and two more to Central time zone opponents in Tennessee and New Orleans. Yep, New Orleans. Meaning the 49ers will be visiting the Big Easy for the third time in about a year, and returning to the scene of Sunday night's Super Bowl crime.
San Francisco also has its work cut out at home. The 49ers will face five playoff teams from 2012 in its eight games at Candlestick, drawing a visit from the Seahawks, Falcons, Texans, Colts and Packers. All of those teams won at least 11 games this season, and combined the eight San Francisco home opponents went an impressive 77-51 in 2012.
The 49ers face the NFC South and the AFC South next season, and run up against most of the league's good young quarterbacks. It's Colin Kaepernick versus Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III (maybe) and Russell Wilson (twice) in 2013. And you can throw in dates against Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan for good measure.