The Baltimore Ravens will go to the Super Bowl this year. Correction: The Ravens had better get to the Super Bowl this year.
With playoff nemesis Pittsburgh out of the way, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the Ravens and a trip to Indianapolis is themselves. Look around the remaining AFC playoff field, and there's a team that didn't have a winning record in the regular season (Denver Broncos), a team starting a third-string rookie quarterback (Houston Texans) and a team that has the AFC's worst defense (New England Patriots).
You know that Ray Lewis broke into his pregame dance when he saw what was left in the AFC. Baltimore starts its postseason by playing the Texans on Sunday after a bye week. It was only three months ago that the Ravens beat the Texans by 15 points after a bye week.
If the Patriots win the other AFC divisional-round game Saturday, the Ravens would have to play the AFC Championship Game in New England, where they beat Tom Brady and the Patriots by 19 points two years ago. If the Broncos work their magic again, the AFC Championship Game would be played in Baltimore, where the Ravens have won 10 straight.
Everything is set up for the Ravens this year. If they don't reach the Super Bowl now, they might never do so under coach John Harbaugh.
Some would say it's the Ravens' destiny to go to a Super Bowl in Indianapolis, the city where the Colts moved from Baltimore. The fact is, the team's postseason path has never been more favorable, especially in Harbaugh's four seasons.
Always a wild-card team, Baltimore has had to play all seven playoff games under Harbaugh on the road. As a No. 2 seed this year, the Ravens host a postseason game for the first time in five years.
Baltimore failed to make it to the Super Bowl the previous three years because it couldn't get past Ben Roethlisberger (twice) and Peyton Manning. Roethlisberger is out of the playoffs after hobbling the past month on a high ankle sprain, and Manning has been out for the entire season after neck surgery. How many years will two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks be out of the Ravens' way before they play their first postseason game?
The Ravens are stressing to everyone to play with a sense of urgency.
"That’s the biggest thing that we emphasize to everybody in the locker room, whether they are 16 years in the league or rookies: Seize every moment," defensive end Cory Redding said. "Control the opportunity you are in. Never take this for granted."
Part of that sense of urgency comes from not knowing how much longer the Ravens will have linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, two of the best to play their positions. Both have been struggling toward the end of the season and will be older than 33 next season.
This Super Bowl run will come down to the Ravens' next generation, running back Ray Rice and linebacker Terrell Suggs. The Ravens are at their best when Rice is breaking long runs and Suggs is hitting quarterbacks.
The Ravens, though, haven't played their best heading into the postseason. In the final three weeks of the regular season, Baltimore got routed in San Diego, survived a late rally against Cleveland and needed two big touchdown runs by Ray Rice to outlast Cincinnati.
In Baltimore's defense, no AFC team is playing great. Houston and Denver both lost their last three games of the regular season, and New England had to come back from big first-quarter deficits (17 and 21 points) to win its last two games.
What has separated the Ravens from the remaining AFC teams is their ability to beat the best teams. The Ravens went undefeated in a division that sent three teams to the playoffs. Baltimore is also 6-0 against this year's playoff teams, which is far better than New England (1-2), Houston (3-2) and Denver (1-3).
“I’ve got the Ravens going to the Super Bowl," former Ravens coach Brian Billick told a Baltimore radio station. "They’re going to beat Houston. I think they can go in and beat New England."
When it comes to the postseason, the biggest question mark for the Ravens is quarterback Joe Flacco. In seven playoff games, he has completed 53.3 percent of his passes, throwing four touchdowns and seven interceptions.
But the only quarterback left in the AFC with more playoff wins than Flacco is Brady.
“Normally, when you size up the playoff pool, it’s what? Rank the quarterbacks," Billick said. "In the AFC, obviously at the top of the pyramid is Tom Brady. I don’t think anybody would argue that, and no disrespect to Joe Flacco, but no one is going to pick Joe Flacco over Tom Brady. But there’s no question the Baltimore Ravens are a more complete team.”
After three straight years of coming up short in the playoffs, the Ravens believe they're the more motivated team.
"Everything fuels what you’re going through," Harbaugh said. "Every shared experience fuels who you become, what you become -- the disappointments as much as the triumphs. That was a big disappointment last year."
Even if this year ends in similar disappointment, the Ravens will have plenty more trips to the playoffs in the future with the likes of Rice, Flacco, Suggs and Haloti Ngata. But an opportunity like this one in the AFC might not come around again.
The time for the Ravens' Super Bowl is now.