The New England Patriots-Pittsburgh Steelers AFC championship game matchup is a nightmare for Ravens fans, but it does put in perspective what quarterback Joe Flacco was able to accomplish in the 2012 season.
With either the Patriots’ Tom Brady or the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger poised to lead their team into the Super Bowl, that will guarantee that for the 14th time in 16 years, the starting quarterback of the AFC champion will either be Brady, Roethlisberger or Peyton Manning. Brady did it in 2001, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2011 and 2014. Roethlisberger did the honors in 2005, 2008 and 2010, while Manning led either the Indianapolis Colts or Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl in 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2015.
The two exceptions have one thing in common: They both played at the University of Delaware. Rich Gannon led the Oakland Raiders to the Super Bowl in 2002 and Flacco did the same with the Ravens in 2012. Not that this will make the next couple of weeks any more tolerable for Ravens’ fans.
No one to franchise: I’ve gotten a good number of questions recently about whether the Ravens would consider using the franchise tag to keep one of their top unrestricted free agents off the open market, like they’ve done in past seasons. It seems highly unlikely this year.
Nose tackle Brandon Williams might be the best candidate, but the franchise tag for defensive linemen is expected to be around $13.5 million, depending on the updated salary cap. Having Williams on the books in 2017 for $13.5 million would significantly hamper the Ravens’ ability to make meaningful roster additions around him.
As for starting right tackle Rick Wagner, he would likely cost a little north of $14 million to franchise. Again, that would be far too prohibitive.
Tagging Kyle Juszczyk also isn’t an option as there’s no special designation for fullbacks, meaning he’d be considered a running back and he’d be due around $12 million. That’s not happening.
Potential secondary coaches: If the Ravens fill their secondary coaching opening with an internal hire – and that was at least under consideration as of last week – two options could be Chris Hewitt and Chris Horton. Hewitt has been the defensive backs coach the past two seasons, working last year under Leslie Frazier, who left last week to become the defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills. Horton was an assistant special teams coach, but he was an NFL safety for four seasons.
Tempted by a tackle?: With all the talk from Ravens coach John Harbaugh in recent weeks about the importance of solidifying the offensive line, you have to wonder whether the team would be tempted to take a tackle if one of the top ones is still available when the Ravens draft at No. 16.
The Ravens will likely need to find a replacement for Wagner, and the thought of going forward with two young first-round picks at the tackle spots, a second-year left guard, a perennial Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda at right guard and a center to be named has to at least be intriguing.
The bet here, though, is the Ravens focus on finding an impact skill position player on offense or a cornerback or pass rusher on defense. The draft is supposed to be filled with pass rushers and corners, so that shouldn’t be a problem.
A flawed narrative: A popular narrative these days is about how the Ravens were nine seconds away from beating the Steelers, winning the AFC North and possibly engineering a similar playoff run that Pittsburgh is now on. I’ve even contributed to it.
But let’s remind ourselves that even if C.J. Mosley and Eric Weddle had brought down Steelers’ wide receiver Antonio Brown short of the goal line, Pittsburgh still may have had a shot to spike the ball and kick a field goal to force overtime or try to score on one play inside the 1-yard line.
I’m not convinced that Pittsburgh wouldn’t have enough time to stop the clock there, nor would I have liked the Ravens’ chances in overtime, given that the Steelers had all the momentum.
And furthermore, even if the Ravens had won that game, it’s foolish to consider it a formality that they would have beaten the Cincinnati Bengals on the road in Week 17. The Ravens didn’t play well on the road all season and they’ve long struggled to win in Cincinnati.
What seemed to be ignored in the whole debate was the fact that Hester, as a Raven, looked pretty explosive when he had the ball in his hands. He was among the league leaders in kick return average for a decent part of the 2016 season and ranked sixth in that category when he was let go by the Ravens in mid-December.
Hester’s issues were with what led up to him getting the ball and taking off on a return. He seemed hesitant to take the ball out of the end zone on kickoffs, or to field the ball in traffic on punts. He cost the Ravens field position on a weekly basis because of his reluctance to catch punts in traffic. He also bobbled or mishandled quite a few punts, fumbling five times in all.
He seemed to be playing with very little confidence with the Ravens, and perhaps the cause of that was he was dealing with a groin injury and wasn’t healthy.
Either way, the guy is a likely Hall-of-Fame player. To suggest he didn’t care or was just mailing it in is unfair. His teammates loved him and team officials seemed genuinely upset things didn’t work out for him in Baltimore.