In a way it showcases the difficulty for success in the AFC North. Three of the last eight Super Bowl Champions have come from the AFC North, a division that the Cincinnati Bengals have worked so hard to conquer, but often falling well-short through depressing four-win seasons, optimistic 8-8 years and having recently graduated to the one-and-done club in the postseason. Let's not use Baltimore as an example on how teams should be run -- we could use that argument for every Super Bowl champion. Instead refer to the Ravens ability to exercise mental toughness, generating motivation from within, led by veteran players and genuinely followed by younger stars in the making. Those traits are lacking in Cincinnati right now, largely because they're young, setting their own path. Mental toughness isn't there yet, nor is the confrontation to adversity.
Since John Harbaugh became Baltimore's head coach, drafting Joe Flacco in the first round of the 2008 NFL playoffs, the Ravens have participated in three AFC Championship games, won a Super Bowl and amassed an 8-4 postseason record. Hate them all you want, but at some point you have to respect the success. Quarterback Joe Flacco alone generated 11 touchdowns, no interceptions for a passer rating of 117.2, which is arguably one of the top quarterback performances in postseason history. His primary receiver Anquan Boldin led the NFL with 22 receptions and four touchdowns in four playoff games combined.
Despite taking a 28-6 lead, with a little help from the football gods to shift a near-blowout into a competitive one-possession game, the Ravens secured the win using a mad blitz to disrupt Colin Kaepernick into poor redzone throws. A handful of clock expiring runs later and a safety that left four seconds in the game, the San Francisco 49ers needed a Ted Ginn punt return for a touchdown. Nothing.
And congratulations Bobbie Williams. Though he didn't play any offensive downs Sunday, Williams contributed on seven special teams snaps, recording his first Super Bowl win during his career.
Now the NFL season ends and everything reboots, starting with free agency. Cincinnati will need to further acquire core components, but urgently need younger players to grow up. Andy Dalton needs patience with a cool head withstanding the face of an intense pass rush while guys like Jermaine Gresham become dependable options. Younger receivers need to make their own marks, rather than being the answer to an over-asked question about the No. 2 receiver. And though the NFL is about offense, Cincinnati can't let a mass walkout of free agent defensive players depart for free agency to lessen the team's best unit. All the while Cincinnati's front office sign, seals and delivers top-level players like Andre Smith, Michael Johnson, Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap.
For Cincinnati to reach the level of Baltimore now, change is needed. Drastic change? No. But enough to push them over the unattainable mountain that's neglected postseason stories of victory, mead and wenches after battle. Otherwise failing to capitulate the pressing nature for continued offseason development resolves into more bitter seasons watching teams like Baltimore and Pittsburgh build upon what Cincinnati is lacking.