Ravens, Broncos duel for AFC supremacy
No team has returned to the Super Bowl in successive seasons, much less won it, since the 2004 Patriots. The Ravens will give it a try but without two of the greatest players in franchise history.
Linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed are gone from the defending champions. Lewis retired after 17 seasons, and Reed, who will be 35 on Sept. 11, went to Houston via free agency.
Both are locks for the Hall of Fame, but both lost a step in 2012.
Lewis, the vocal, animated leader on the field and in the locker room, made his presence felt despite playing in just six regular-season games, and Reed was solid. But now it's Joe Flacco's team. A quiet, lead-by-example type, the Ravens' quarterback got a car for being named MVP of Super Bowl XLVII. Now he has the keys to the franchise to go with a healthy contract extension.
Flacco is being mentioned among the elite QBs, but there are challenges. Top-notch receiver Anquan Boldin was traded to San Francisco, and Dennis Pitta, who became a key weapon at tight end, likely is out for the season after suffering a fractured and dislocated hip during training camp.
Their absences will be significant, but there is Flacco, a year older and presumably wiser, joined by versatile running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Someone, maybe Torrey Smith, needs to step up among the wideouts. The defense failed to live up to past Ravens standards, but with as many as six new starters, it should be better. Even without Lewis and Reed.
Still, the Ravens might be favored to return to the Super Bowl.
In a dazzling first season for Peyton Manning, Denver won 11 in a row before their 38-35, double-overtime loss to Baltimore in the division playoff.
Manning set single-season team passing records and seemed to improve weekly. This year should be even better, especially with the addition of Wes Welker. Welker averaged 111 catches and 1,243 yards over the past six seasons with New England. But every team has obstacles. Two for the Broncos are the loss of center Dan Koppen to injury and linebacker Von Miller's six-game suspension.
Putting Aaron Hernandez behind them, New England, 39-9 over the past three regular seasons, will be in the mix again, although receiving depth and its perennial issues in the secondary might cause problems.
Cincinnati might be ready to take the next big step. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green form a dangerous pitch-and-catch combination, and a pesky defense welcomes ex-Steeler James Harrison.
Houston should contend again after going 12-4 before getting handled by New England in the playoffs, but running back Arian Foster's health is a concern.
Rookie quarterback Andrew Luck took Indianapolis to the playoffs, but can it happen again?
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.