In middle, put R. Lewis at the top

January 08, 2001|By Mike Preston

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - As the national media continue to descend upon the Ravens and star middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the story line needs to change from Lewis' having a season of vindication to Lewis' possibly being the best player in the NFL.

Though St. Louis Rams running back Marshall Faulk has already received the league's Most Valuable Player award, there is only one player in the class of Lewis, and that's Minnesota Vikings receiver Randy Moss.

As an offensive player, Moss has several opportunities to turn a game around, but Lewis does the same thing on defense. Was he absolutely incredible yesterday in the Ravens' 24-10 win against the Tennessee Titans in the AFC semifinals?

He is the total package of speed, emotion, leadership and big-play potential, and there has never been a linebacker who covers as much distance on the field.

Lewis' phenomenal season was played out in microcosm yesterday. He led the team in tackles with 12. Again. He stalked and delivered some of the game's most vicious hits on Eddie George, one of the best running backs in the league. He fueled the team's emotion by pile-driving quarterback Steve McNair into the ground in the second quarter, and then delivered the encore play by returning an interception 50 yards for a touchdown that put the Ravens ahead by 14 points with 6 minutes, 41 seconds left in the game.

But there were still questions surrounding the double-murder trial involving Lewis last May, in which murder charges against him were dropped for a misdemeanor plea of obstructing justice. Does he feel vindicated now? What will it mean to him to play in a Super Bowl after being on trial? What did he learn from the experience?

Stop. Enough. It's like hearing about the O. J. Simpson trial again. Haven't we had enough already?

Lewis has been through this ad nauseam. It's time to move on. No one will condone Lewis' involvement in the case, but that situation won't change until the real murderers are charged and found guilty.

Lewis is no longer on trial, and he should heed some advice: Don't answer those questions anymore. Just say no.

"It's an absolute non-issue anymore," said Ravens coach Brian Billick.

Agreed. Now, here is something to talk about: In only five seasons, Lewis already is mentioned in the same breath with Dick Butkus, Willie Lanier, Ray Nitschke and Jack Lambert.

"I saw Ray in the shower, and I said, `Ray, you know I'm a straight shooter and I don't blow smoke,' " said Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer, " `but you're the best player I've ever seen in this league. I've played with Warren Sapp and I saw Reggie White and countless others. But you are the best I've ever seen.'

"What he does for this team, emotionally, the way he works, his leadership, his play is unparalleled," Dilfer said.

The interception was vintage Lewis. George ran a slide route into the right flat, bobbled a pass slightly behind him that Lewis snatched out of his hands and then took down the sideline. The only player who had a shot at him was Fred Miller, a 6-foot-7, 315-pound tackle.

Goodbye.

"I wasn't going to be brought down," Lewis said. "I just broke on the ball, saw him bobble it and grabbed it. Then I saw the end zone. I was tired, but I got there. It was just a great feeling."

Lewis had a lot of highs yesterday, but he left the Titans feeling blue. He had several great hits in the Music City, but the body slam of McNair with 6:47 remaining in the second quarter left the partisan crowd of 68,527 breathless as the quarterback lay stretched out on the turf.

Meanwhile, the Ravens were pumped.

"We got jacked," said Ravens outside linebacker Jamie Sharper. "We thought that was going to put McNair out of the game, but McNair is a tough guy. He came back. But Ray is a tougher guy."

The Lewis vs. George matchup was a classic. The Ravens had berated George most of the week, saying he was afraid to run against them and he had "folded like a baby" the last time the two teams met in Tennessee. Actually, they were right, but what's that saying about a sleeping giant?

George ran for a hard-earned 91 yards, and regained some respect from the Ravens. His effort should shut up some loudmouths on the Ravens, particularly cornerback Chris McAlister, who should have learned to control his tongue several weeks ago, when Arizona Cardinals receiver David Boston torched him.

But, boy, did Lewis put some licks on George. He caught a short pass over the middle with 3:50 left in the first quarter. George was one-on-one with Lewis, who stopped George dead for an 8-yard gain that had potential for a lot more.

That was Lanier-like.

Then, with 7:30 left in the half, George caught a pass over the middle for a 3-yard gain and Lewis put his helmet to George's ear hole for a knockdown.

Advantage, Lewis. That was Butkus-like.

"Two premier players, heavyweight fighters just slugging it out, just taking the body blows and coming back for more," said Billick, enjoying this postseason ride on the defense.

After the game, George came into the Ravens' locker room and hugged Lewis, his close friend. They share a mutual respect. George is the Titans' best player, and Lewis is perhaps the best in the league.

On a day when the Ravens' offense had only six first downs and 134 yards of total offense, held the ball for only 19:31 and had two punts blocked, Lewis scored a touchdown and helped hold two of the league's top impact players, McNair and George, to 10 points.

Near the end of the game, Billick had a brief chat with Lewis on the sideline.

"Basically, he said there is no doubt that this is the best defense ever," Lewis said.

Nope, not yet. Great defenses win championships, but the Ravens are closing fast. And so is Lewis, who is becoming one of the best ever to play the game.

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