Recent history is littered with cautionary tales of sequels gone bad, seasons sunk by high expectations, title defenses derailed by injuries and complacency.
It's been nearly a decade since an NFL team has won back-to-back Super Bowls. It's been eight years since the reigning champion has even won a postseason game the next season.
The Ravens' official defense of their Super Bowl XLVII title begins Thursday night against the Denver Broncos, a rematch of their divisional round playoff thriller in January. To get back to another Super Bowl, the Ravens will have to navigate through a deep AFC North and a stacked slate of non-divisional and out-of conference contests.
But more than anything, the Ravens' biggest obstacle toward repeating might be avoiding the pitfalls that have doomed so many Super Bowl winners before them. Winning one Super Bowl is hard enough. Winning back-to-back titles has become a foreign concept in a league where parity has recently reigned.
"When you win a Super Bowl one year, the same effort and same preparation that you had that year is just not good enough to win a Super Bowl the next year," said former Ravens linebacker Peter Boulware, who played on the 2000 championship team.
"You just have to do everything better. To win a Super Bowl, so many things have to go right. So winning back-to-back means you're extremely good and you got the breaks all year, too."
The experiences of Baltimore's past Super Bowl winners illustrate the challenge. In 2001, the Ravens reworked many contracts in a desperate effort to keep their roster intact, but they lost decisively in the second round of the playoffs. The 1971 Colts played in an era when league rules were less stacked against champions, but they also lost in their second playoff game.
Only eight times in the Super Bowl's 47-year history has a team won back-to-back titles. Only two of those repeats have come since 1994, the year the NFL instituted a salary cap — each team has $123 million to spend on salaries in 2013 — making it difficult to maintain the core of a championship club. TheNew England Patriots were the last team to repeat, winning in 2003 and 2004.
"I've learned this: You truly find out a lot about yourself after you've won your first," said Tedy Bruschi, a former Patriots linebacker and current ESPN analyst. "To still have the motivation to win another one next year, that really takes a special team."
Super Bowl champions often deal with an offseason exodus of players and coaches, because winning leads to more money or opportunity elsewhere. Some analysts believe Super Bowl winners are more vulnerable to injury because they played a month longer than most competitors the previous season.
There are less tangible factors, such as increased expectations and the pressure of every opponent treating you as a major target. Then there's the "Super Bowl hangover," a perceived organizational malaise that comes after celebrating the ultimate team accomplishment.
"Coaches can't get complacent, the general manager can't, the scouts can't," said Scott Pioli, the Patriots vice president for player personnel from 2002 to 2008 and now an NBC Sports NFL analyst. "People always insinuate that it's just the players that you have to worry about, and it's not. As leaders, [coach Bill Belichick] and I certainly worried about ourselves, too. It becomes an institutional rally that you have to keep an entire organization stimulated and aware of the potential pitfalls."
Nothing to defend
Ravens coach John Harbaugh and his staff leave nothing to chance, poring over statistics and trends looking to gain an edge. But when players and coaches were asked how much time was spent the past couple of months discussing the challenge of defending a title, their answers ranged from very little to none at all.
"You bringing it up is probably the first time I've heard anything about the Super Bowl since we've been in camp. We just don't talk about it," said Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who was the linebackers coach with the Patriots when they repeated in 2004. "Everybody uses the term 'defending Super Bowl champions,' [but] we're not. We're Super Bowl champions. We're not defending anything because we can't lose that. You can only defend what you can lose.
"All 32 teams are starting over. We have a mountain to climb, but so does everybody else."
The notion of a preseason Super Bowl favorite seems foolish when you consider that only twice in the past 12 seasons has a No.1 seed entering the playoffs gone on to win a Super Bowl. The reigning Super Bowl champion hasn't made the playoffs the following year in three of the previous seven seasons.
"That, in itself, speaks about how so many things have to come together in one season, particularly in a playoff run," said former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach and Super Bowl winner Bill Cowher, now an NFL on CBS analyst. "The parity that exists right now is as evident as it's ever been."
The Green Bay Packers followed up their 2010 championship by going 15-1 but were knocked out of the playoffs in the divisional round.The 2007 Indianapolis Colts started their title defense by going 13-3 in the regular season but they too were bounced in their first playoff game.
There are teams like Cowher's 2006 Steelers, who seemingly never recovered from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's emergency appendectomy; and the 2012 Giants, who endured an onslaught of significant injuries. Neither team made the playoffs.
"You win a championship, you get the first-place schedule, you lose players, you lose coaches. You draft last. You get penalized for being good and winning a championship," Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. "That's why it's such a challenge and such an accomplishment to get yourself back [to the playoffs] the following season."
Those who have done it acknowledge the difficulty of the task. Pees recalled the intensity teams brought even to preseason games against the Patriots in 2004. Former NFL running back Terrell Davis, one of the stars of the Denver Broncos' 1997 and 1998 championship teams, remembered how motivated struggling teams such as the Oakland Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals were against the Broncos in 1998.
"What it does for a team like the Raiders, maybe it's 15 minutes more they spend watching tape of you. Maybe guys who are traditionally not practice guys practiced their [butts] off that week," said Davis, now an analyst for the NFL Network. "You're essentially playing playoff games every week, it seems like. That wears you down. You can't play 16 playoff games."
The Ravens do share some characteristics with teams that have repeated. They have stable ownership under Steve Bisciotti, an enviable front office led by general manager Ozzie Newsome, a demanding coach in Harbaugh, an established quarterback with Joe Flacco, and veteran leaders determined to maintain the organization's standards after losing stars Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
A different team
Still, the Ravens are a significantly different team from the group that beat the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
Eight players who started that game are no longer Ravens, six of them from the defense. The roster overhaul was unprecedented for a Super Bowl champ, and it was triggered by the team's salary cap and age problems.
"I think sometimes when you win a championship, you get lulled into thinking that, 'OK, we have to bring that same team back.' But it's good to have some change," Cowher said. "[The Ravens] still have a lot of the foundation of what won last year, and they know what it takes to win."
Bruschi put the onus of avoiding a hangover largely on Harbaugh and some of the veterans acquired in the offseason, including defensive end Chris Canty, who earned a Super Bowl ring with the Giants in 2011 and then watched the team go 9-7 and miss the playoffs last year.
"There is an opportunity for complacency. Certainly, I've lived that nightmare before," Canty said. "You have to put your team back together every single year. It's not like you're picking up where you just left off in February with the same football team. It's a different team."
After their celebratory trip to the White House and their lavish ring ceremony, Harbaugh and other team officials have worked to distance themselves from last year. While the Lombardi Trophy is prominently displayed in the team facility, Harbaugh has made it clear that is the 2012 team's achievement. The 2013 Ravens are out to get a trophy of their own.
"If you're smart and humble, you realize that you have to work harder than you did the year before," Pioli said. "I think it takes a great deal of humility throughout the organization, and that's why they have a chance. The leadership group in terms of Steve, Ozzie and John, they are all strong men with tremendous humility. They don't think they have it all figured out."
Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun