Season starts with charting of Super Ravens


Andy Dalton

NEW ORLEANS — Ravens running back Ray Rice, his voice higher than he is, squeaked with the emotion of the longest Super Bowl ever.

"It's going to be Baltimore and Cincinnati battling for the AFC North now," he said. "They're young. It's good to be young."

The confetti and the building's chief engineer haven't even been swept off the floor of the Superdome and Joe Flacco won't get his MVP trophy until later Monday morning, but already the AFC North standings have reverted. Everyone, including the Super Bowl champion Ravens, is 0-0.

A last glimpse at the 2012 standings shows the Bengals with the same 10-6 record as the Super Bowl champs, but a lot has changed since the Ravens lost that fifth preseason game to close out the regular season at Paul Brown Stadium a scant 36 days ago.

The Ravens were supposed to be in transition, right? Middle linebacker Ray Lewis is ascending to heaven and the Hall of Fame, not necessarily in that order, and Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin are supposedly taking their yellowed birth certificates and big salary cap hits to new teams.

(And both were huge here in Baltimore's 34-31 victory Sunday night with the 6-2 Boldin playing like the 6-4 Randy Moss with six catches for 104 yards and Reed tying the NFL record with his ninth postseason interception.)

But the Ravens quarterback, Flacco, has come into his own with the most flawless postseason this side of another Joe Cool. Montana. And Baltimore's big-play people that stumbled in the clutch in two of its most recent forays into the playoffs (T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Lee Evans) and were so in and out the last month of the season came of age.

Their sticky fingerprints are all over the Lombardi Trophy, most notably those belonging to Boldin, but fellow wide receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones and tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson have finally given the Ravens defense an offense it deserved.

And while the Ravens looked old and tired at the end Sunday, their goal-line stand on San Francisco's three snaps from the 5-yard line with two minutes left that preserved the 34-29 lead didn't have Lewis and Reed in the frame.

On fourth down fourth-year linebacker Dannell Ellerbe pressured 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick while second-year cornerback Jimmy Smith covered wide receiver Michael Crabtree so well that San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh blew a gasket. On second and third down, cornerbacks Cary Williams and Corey Graham were all over their receivers while the faceless defensive line without injured Pro Bowl tackle Haloti Ngata (knee) much of the second half offered just enough heat on Kaepernick.

Meanwhile, Flacco finished the postseason with 11 TDs and no picks with three of those TDs coming Sunday, and Jacoby Jones, a guy that any team in the NFL could have had back in April for a late-round pick, scored on another long bomb and added the longest play in Super Bowl history on a 108-yard kick return.

All those guys figure to be back vs. Cincinnati in PBS next season, where the Bengals have won three of the last four against the Ravens.  

"I don't know where you heard that. This is definitely not our last ride. It's Ray's last ride. I wouldn't say it's the Ravens' last ride," Graham said. "I expect us to be in no different situation next year."

The Bengals are looking to make it a different situation in the wake of two straight seasons they were one and done in the playoffs after the Ravens won the the division. Just how much difference there is between the Super Bowl champs and Cincinnati consumes the Bengals the rest of the offseason.

"Not much," former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason said before he did double duty Sunday night as a member of the CBS studio panel and as the radio analyst.

"(The Ravens are) going through major changes over the offseason. No Ray Lewis. Most likely no Ed Reed, so now all of a sudden it's the changing of the guard and Cincinnati is an up and coming team. They play the Ravens tough all the time. The Steelers are going to be good as long as Ben (Roethlisberger) is there, they're going to be good, strong and tough. The Bengals are right there with the Steelers. Baltimore's not here except for a 70-yard miracle touchdown pass (in Denver). Now they did beat the crap out of New England in the second half. I take nothing away from them. The AFC to me is wide open."

Super Bowl XLVII turned out to be a lovely evening of second-guessing.

While wondering if Saints coach Sean Payton got his ultimate revenge on Roger Goodell by pulling the plug somewhere and causing a power outage that delayed the game 34 minutes in the third quarter, you could also wonder about the Brothers Harbaugh.

While Jim was inexplicably taking Kaepernick's blazing speed and putting it in the pocket for the last three snaps while icing rampaging running back Frank Gore, John Harbaugh tried a curious fake field goal in the second quarter where he asked his kicker to run nine yards for a first down.

But the Ravens knew the 49ers were throwing on those last three plays.

"We knew they were going to put it in the hands of (Kaepernick) and roll and throw it to (Crabtree)," said Ravens defensive line coach Clarence Brooks. "That's what the stats said and that's what we thought they would try to do."

The Niners did everything but roll. The Ravens took care of that and chalked up their survival in a tractor pull that is only the second NFL title game in history in which both teams scored at least 30 points to playing in the AFC North.

"We know how to grind out games. I think we can win any kind of game and that's because of our division," Jimmy Smith said. "It's a tough, physical defensive division with great playmakers. It forces you to be balanced."

The Bengals know they have to ratchet up their offense to keep pace with the champs. Rice may have had just 59 yards on 20 carries Sunday and Pitta and Dickson combined for just six catches for 66 yards, but their past exploits set up Flacco's long ball. The Bengals are looking for a Riceian big-play running back as early as the second round in the draft and need that type of Pitta consistency from tight end Jermaine Gresham. Who knows how six catches underneath would have tilted the 19-13 loss in the Wild Card playoff in Houston?

Yet Esiason isn't the only one that thinks the Bengals are close to the Ravens. His CBS colleague and former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher leaned that way earlier in the week.

"I like the Bengals with who they have. A.J. Green. Can Andy Dalton take the next step? That's still a big question right there," Cowher said. "Defensively they're sound. There's not a lot of difference in the National Football League. It's all about getting on a run at the right time. It's winning one of these games.

"I don't think there's a whole lot of difference. I think the difference right now between those two teams is probably an offensive line that played very well in the playoffs … defensively you could say Cincinnati is better in some respects. But the quarterback position is the difference.

"Joe Flacco has separated himself in terms of making plays when he had to make plays. (But) you've got to be careful to not over-analyze something because it can be just one or two plays."

After 13 seasons, Ravens backup right guard Bobbie Williams got the ring Sunday night and the man who spent most of his career in Cincinnati has a pretty good perspective on what looms ahead for Bengals-Ravens.

More AFC North grind jobs.

"The AFC North. That's how we do it. We grind. We embrace the grind," Williams said. "Once you understand it in training camp, you embrace the grind and we embraced it."

Williams turns 37 next season, but he wants to come back. Even though there are going to be some major changes on defense, he thinks the Ravens are going to be OK, motioning toward his locker neighbor, right tackle Michael Oher.

"We've got some young guys. Michael Oher is in his fourth season … a guy like Ellerbe has stepped up. (Lewis) is going to be missed, but Coach Harbs does a good job planning ahead."

The beauty of John Harbaugh, much like Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, is that he knows exactly what his team is and thrives on it. Smith was able to muck out that last play with just the right touch on the fourth-down fade to Crabtree.

"I stayed square. It looked like my body was out, but he was trying to push me away. That's why he didn't call (pass interference)," Smith said. "But I let go in just enough time because he had five yards, so I let him go and the timing was messed up.

"He tapped the back of his head, so I assumed it was a back shoulder (throw), so I took inside leverage and tried to get my hands on him. Perfect call, perfect play."

Harbaugh gets it.

"The final series of Ray Lewis's career was a goal-line stand to win the Lombardi Trophy," he said. "Ray said on the podium, 'How could it be any other than that?' We have said many times after many of these games, 'It was not perfect, it was not pretty, but it was us.' That is who we are."

The Bengals hope to be just as ugly at the end of next season's rematch, the fourth time in five years they'll host a reigning Super Bowl MVP.

"I think the two of us are going to be fighting it out for a while," Rice said.

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