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Ravens poised to take next step in crowded AFC

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Joe Flacco (5) and the Ravens hope to reach the Super Bowl before the window closes on an aging defense.

Joe Flacco (5) and the Ravens hope to reach the Super Bowl before the window closes on an aging defense.

Associated Press

Two years, two close calls, and two long offseasons pondering "what if" for the Baltimore Ravens.

What if Billy Cundiff hadn't missed that chip-shot field goal against the Patriots in the AFC championship game eight months ago, the one that would have sent it to overtime? What if Baltimore's usually reliable defense held onto that seemingly comfortable 14-point halftime lead over the hated Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round the year before that?

In a league that rarely offers second chances — let alone third ones — the Ravens find themselves still searching for that Lombardi Trophy to bookend the one linebacker Ray Lewis led them to a dozen seasons ago.

Time is running out.

Lewis is 37 and noticeably slimmer but he's already logged 222 games at one of football's most demanding positions. Safety Ed Reed turns 34 next month and skipped minicamp while hinting at retirement. Quarterback Joe Flacco is entering his fifth year as a starter and running back Ray Rice is signed to a long-term deal and in his prime.

Anything less than ending the season in New Orleans will be a disappointment.

Coach John Harbaugh has preached "finish" during training camp, the one thing the Ravens haven't done on the cusp of the game's biggest stage. This may be their best — and perhaps last — shot at breaking through in a competitive conference in the midst of a transition.

The Steelers begin the season with eyes on a seventh championship, but are also dealing with the kind of roster turnover they've largely avoided during their latest revival.

The Patriots might be the only team in the league nursing a bigger postseason hangover than the Ravens after the New York Giants stunned them — again — in the Super Bowl.

Tom Brady's longtime rival Peyton Manning left Indianapolis for Denver, where the Broncos believe the four-time MVP's surgically repaired neck is strong enough to get them back to the Super Bowl for the first time since John Elway was doing his thing.

Houston finally broke the Colts' stranglehold on the AFC South when Manning sat out last season, and the Texans appear to easily be the class of that division as long as quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson stay healthy. The Texans won their first playoff game behind rookie T.J. Yates before falling to Baltimore in the divisional round.

"The key is that you stay focused on your goals and you stay focused on the work," coach Gary Kubiak said, "because you never know how something is going to happen."