The Baltimore Ravens were one of the last four teams in the NFL playoffs, no small feat for a team that went 5-11 last year.
"We look back with some pride on what was accomplished," coach
John Harbaugh said Wednesday. "Our guys have established an
identity. We're a rough, tough, disciplined, hardworking,
blue-collar football team."
That description can also be applied to the Pittsburgh Steelers,
who handed Baltimore half its six losses this season, including a
23-14 thumping in the AFC championship game Sunday.
The Ravens have much to do this offseason, beginning with hiring
a defensive coordinator to replace Rex Ryan, who left to become
head coach of the New York Jets. Baltimore also must evaluate the
cost of keeping several players eligible for free agency, most
notably linebacker Ray Lewis.
Virtually everything on their checklist is with one objective in
mind: To be better than Pittsburgh.
"It is the kind of team we want to be," owner Steve Bisciotti
said. "Three contests ended in their favor, so I would say they're
a notch above us right now."
The Ravens may have outlasted 28 other teams, but they're only
second-best in the AFC North.
"I'm thrilled that arguably one of the top three teams in this
league is in our division. It's something for us to shoot for,"
Bisciotti said. "I'm glad we're not the cream of our division. We
didn't win the championship, we didn't win the division, and we're
supposed to be pleased where we are? Our sights are focused on
beating Pittsburgh. If you start there and you climb that mountain,
then we're probably going to be pretty good."
The Ravens (13-6) will fill the void left by the departure of
Ryan "in-house," according to Harbaugh. Mike Pettine left with
Ryan to become defensive coordinator of the Jets, leaving Vic
Fangio, Greg Mattison, Chuck Pagano and Clarence Brooks as the
candidates to run Baltimore's formidable defense.
Whoever gets the job can only hope to have Lewis at middle
linebacker. Lewis has spent his entire career with the Ravens since
being draft in the first round of the 1996 draft, and the
33-year-old showed this season he can still play at a high level.
He is by far the most significant name on a free agent list that
includes linebackers Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott, center Jason
Brown, safety Jim Leonhard and kicker Matt Stover. Keeping Lewis in
a Baltimore uniform will likely be costly for the Ravens, although
Bisciotti said he hopes to get a "hometown discount."
"I don't think that other people are going to value Ray Lewis
higher than we do. I've got my wife on a budget already to try to
save some money so we can sign him," the owner said. "I certainly
don't want to see him in a different uniform."
A year ago, Bisciotti met with the media after the season and
announced the firing of head coach Brian Billick. On this day, he
spoke proudly about the performance of Harbaugh, who took a
struggling franchise to within one win of the Super Bowl with a
rookie quarterback. Joe Flacco wasn't always spectacular, but he
showed enough to make the Ravens believe they've got the position
covered for the next decade or so.
"When this season started, I said to John, 'If we win six games
and I've got my coach and quarterback of the future, I'll be
happy,"' Bisciotti said. "As an owner, you want a coach and
quarterback you feel can be in your organization for 10 years. I'm
very hopeful and confident that we've got that."
Harbaugh and Flacco might get some help during the offseason.
Bisciotti indicated that if a high-profile free agent became
available, the Ravens would take a close look - although the final
decision would rest with general manager Ozzie Newsome.
"I hope that there are some guys out there available that we
can nab to get over the top," Bisciotti said. "You take a chance
when it presents itself. If you think that's the missing piece,
then if John and Ozzie agree, there's a real good chance I'm going
to fall in line with that."