While Cincinnati Bengals fans are basking in the glow of a surprise post season appearance and a very bright future, for the two teams squaring off to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, their window of opportunity is right now. The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens have been atop the AFC, along with Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, for over a decade now, but their cores are aging and each has some off season decisions to make that could significantly alter their team.
The Ravens haven't been to the Super Bowl since Brian Billick took them there and won in 2000. They've got seven other playoff appearances in those years since, however, including three AFC North titles. They've established that consistency through a dominant defensive squad anchored by veterans Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Lewis will turn 37 before next season and Reed 34. Both are sure-fire Hall of Famers, but signs of their play slipping are already evident.
Baltimore also has some huge free agent decisions to make. Two anchors on each side of the line are unrestricted free agents (Ben Grubbs at guard and DE Cory Redding), as well as linebackers Brendan Ayanbadejo and Jarrett Johnson. With Lewis on the downside of his career, keeping each of them becomes more important. The same is true with safety Tom Zbikowski. Of course the biggest free agent decision will be with RB Ray Rice. He will command a major increase in salary with his status as one of the NFL's elite running backs and really the key to Baltimore's offense.
If the Ravens don't win it all this year, there's a very good chance they'll be playing next year with a significantly different roster.
The New England Patriots won their first playoff game since 2007 last week with a win over the Denver Broncos. Already boasting three Super Bowl championships in the last decade, the Pats are looking to cement their status as a legendary franchise with a win in Indianapolis, joining the likes of San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Green Bay. The Patriots window, however, is also closing and they need to win now.
Whereas the Ravens are aging on defense, it's the Patriots' dynastic offense that is getting long in the tooth. Four of New England's five starting linemen will be over 30 next season and Brady's receiving corps of Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco are more likely to appear in a legends game than in another round of playoffs. Yes, they have two dynamic tight ends, but if the Pats boast no threats down the field, that won't give Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez much room to operate.
The list of unrestricted free agents won't help matters either. Both Welker and Branch are due for big contracts as well as starting running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. On the defensive side, the Patriots have to address the statuses of Andre Carter and Shaun Ellis, two key components in their defensive line as well as LB Gary Guyton.
Then there's Tom Brady himself. Brady will turn 35 next season, just a year younger than rival Peyton Manning. As Manning has reminded us all this season, Father Time eventually wins out over every player. Brady is still performing at a Hall of Fame level, but just how much longer can that continue.
For that matter, how much longer will Bill Belichick continue. Belichick will turn 60 this year and has been the head man at New England now since 2000, an eternity in the NFL. Perhaps no coach since Lombardi has had Belichick's drive, but the question is how much longer can that continue to be the case.
No team in the NFL has done a better job of turning over their roster than New England. Through Teddy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel to Corey Dillon and David Patten, they've never been shy about replacing key players. Their system has inarguably still produced winners year after year. Yet as the 49ers and Steelers will tell you, every dynasty has its day eventually.
So while teams like Cincinnati and Houston savor their playoff experience and look toward the future, for the two teams battling for AFC supremacy this weekend, it may be now or never.
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