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Ravens set their sights on surging past Steelers next season

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens were one of the last four teams in the NFL playoffs, no small feat for a team that went 5-11 last year.

"We look back with some pride on what was accomplished," coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. "Our guys have established an identity. We're a rough, tough, disciplined, hardworking, blue-collar football team."

That description can also be applied to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who handed Baltimore half its six losses this season, including a 23-14 thumping in the AFC Championship Game Sunday.

The Ravens have much to do this offseason, beginning with hiring a defensive coordinator to replace Rex Ryan, who left to become head coach of the New York Jets. Baltimore also must evaluate the cost of keeping several players eligible for free agency, most notably linebacker Ray Lewis.

Virtually everything on their checklist is with one objective in mind: To be better than Pittsburgh.

"It is the kind of team we want to be," owner Steve Bisciotti said. "Three contests ended in their favor, so I would say they're a notch above us right now."

The Ravens may have outlasted 28 other teams, but they're only second-best in the AFC North.

"I'm thrilled that arguably one of the top three teams in this league is in our division. It's something for us to shoot for," Bisciotti said. "I'm glad we're not the cream of our division. We didn't win the championship, we didn't win the division, and we're supposed to be pleased where we are? Our sights are focused on beating Pittsburgh. If you start there and you climb that mountain, then we're probably going to be pretty good."

The Ravens (13-6) will fill the void left by the departure of Ryan "in-house," according to Harbaugh. Mike Pettine left with Ryan to become defensive coordinator of the Jets, leaving Vic Fangio, Greg Mattison, Chuck Pagano and Clarence Brooks as the candidates to run Baltimore's formidable defense.

Whoever gets the job can only hope to have Lewis at middle linebacker. Lewis has spent his entire career with the Ravens since being draft in the first round of the 1996 draft, and the 33-year-old showed this season he can still play at a high level.

He is by far the most significant name on a free agent list that includes linebackers Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott, center Jason Brown, safety Jim Leonhard and kicker Matt Stover. Keeping Lewis in a Baltimore uniform will likely be costly for the Ravens, although Bisciotti said he hopes to get a "hometown discount."

"I don't think that other people are going to value Ray Lewis higher than we do. I've got my wife on a budget already to try to save some money so we can sign him," the owner said. "I certainly don't want to see him in a different uniform."

A year ago, Bisciotti met with the media after the season and announced the firing of head coach Brian Billick. On this day, he spoke proudly about the performance of Harbaugh, who took a struggling franchise to within one win of the Super Bowl with a rookie quarterback. Joe Flacco wasn't always spectacular, but he showed enough to make the Ravens believe they've got the position covered for the next decade or so.

"When this season started, I said to John, 'If we win six games and I've got my coach and quarterback of the future, I'll be happy,"' Bisciotti said. "As an owner, you want a coach and quarterback you feel can be in your organization for 10 years. I'm very hopeful and confident that we've got that."

Harbaugh and Flacco might get some help during the offseason. Bisciotti indicated that if a high-profile free agent became available, the Ravens would take a close look - although the final decision would rest with general manager Ozzie Newsome.

"I hope that there are some guys out there available that we can nab to get over the top," Bisciotti said. "You take a chance when it presents itself. If you think that's the missing piece, then if John and Ozzie agree, there's a real good chance I'm going to fall in line with that."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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