Raise your hand if, a year ago, you predicted the Cincinnati Bengals would be playing Sunday in Super Bowl LVI. Didn't think so.
So why can't the Ravens reach Super Bowl LVII?
It may seem improbable right now because the lingering taste from last season is the six-game losing streak. But let's remember, that was not the Ravens. That was an injury-ravaged shell of the Ravens.
Before J.K. Dobbins' preseason knee injury set off the Baltimore Plague of 2021, the Ravens were absolutely and legitimately considered Super Bowl contenders. Get those missing pieces back next season and they should be in that mix again.
The competition will be fierce. Watching the Bengals roll up 82 points on the Ravens this season wasn't comforting. Seeing the Bengals go to the Super Bowl with a horde of young talent signals they're here to stay.
Watching the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills, two teams also led by prolific young quarterbacks, put on a show in an all-time classic divisional playoff game also made it easy to feel like the Ravens were on another planet this year.
But let's not forget that the Ravens beat the Chiefs last season, back when Baltimore's injuries were bad, but not that bad. And Josh Allen and that Bills offense scored 10 points in last year's playoffs against the Ravens.
If we learned anything from the Ravens' 2021 season, it's that predictions in the NFL are mostly hot garbage. The best bet is in the unexpected, and Super Bowl LVI is the perfect case study.
The Bengals won four games last year. The Ravens beat them by a combined score of 65-6. That's even more lopsided than Cincinnati's combined victories over Baltimore were in 2021.
But the Bengals turned things around with an upgraded defense via free agency, the addition of Offensive Rookie of the Year Ja'Marr Chase, the return and high level of play from Comeback Player of the Year Joe Burrow, and general good luck with injuries.
The Ravens aren't in the same position as the Bengals were in last year. Baltimore doesn't have as much salary-cap space to boost the defense with. The Ravens don't have a fifth-overall pick like the Bengals used to get Chase. But I have a feeling Baltimore will get a couple difference-makers on defense in free agency, and the Ravens will get a very good player at No. 14. A last-place schedule, like the one the Bengals had in 2021, won't hurt either.
Baltimore will have a quarterback coming back from what turned out to be a season-ending injury and the Ravens are starting from a better place than the Bengals were last offseason. Baltimore already has some of the game's best players on both sides of the ball and special teams.
Regardless of what happens this offseason with his contract negotiations, Jackson will return next season to give the Ravens one of the best offensive weapons in the league. While the Bengals' weapons are certainly worthy of praise, Baltimore isn't a slouch in that area either once the running backs are healthy. Mark Andrews is one of the best tight ends in the league and the Ravens have strong talent at wide receiver with Marquise Brown improving every season so far and Rashod Bateman in position to make a second-year leap.
The offense will need to get back to running opponents over while continuing to make improvements in the passing game so that it can beat teams in multiple ways and game situations. Jackson's development will of course be crucial.
New Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald will be charged with turning around a unit that will have a lot of new faces in 2022. Baltimore is making its biggest changes on that side of the ball. But the Bengals shook up their defense last offseason too. It was far from a sure bet, even after the free-agent signings, and it rounded into form.
The Ravens need to get more turnovers and sacks (game-changing plays) to beat the best offenses in the AFC. It often takes extra possessions and good field position to pull off those kinds of wins. Baltimore has to improve in the secondary and get younger up front.
Health is probably going to be the most important factor to a Ravens rebound, and it's clear hearing from Head Coach John Harbaugh and General Manager Eric DeCosta last week that it will be a major focus this offseason. The Ravens will find ways to decrease the odds of major injuries and they'll make sure the roster is fortified to handle the potential for slower-than-expected rehabs.
If the Ravens can stay healthier, they'll have the talent and coaching to contend with the big dogs next season. They'll have a shot at Super Bowl LVII.
As the Bengals showed after a 10-7 regular season that ended on a hot streak and rolled into the playoffs, all you need is a shot. They were underdogs in the AFC Championship, but Kansas City got greedy before halftime and then Mahomes turned human.
You don't have to be the "best" team to get to the Super Bowl. Just keep putting yourself in position, which the Ravens will surely do once again.