Ravens' Lewis playing against Manning, and time

Veteran face of team relies on experience to make up for loss of speed

January 13, 2010|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

It's difficult, at this point in Ray Lewis' career, to separate the man from the mystique.

Think about that this weekend when he squares off against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. And ask whether desire and preparation can beat back time.

Manning, the 2009 NFL Most Valuable Player, is at the height of his powers. He's perhaps the best offensive player of this generation, and on every play he'll look across the line of scrimmage at Lewis, perhaps the best defensive player of this generation. They'll match wits for four quarters, with the winner living on to fight another week and the loser cleaning out his locker.

It might be the last time they spar when the stakes are so high. In 2006, the only other time the Ravens and Colts met in the playoffs, Lewis and the Ravens' defense kept Manning out of the end zone, but the Colts still managed to escape with a 15-6 victory, and went on to win the Super Bowl.

"This journey has been up and down, but we are on a great journey right now," Lewis said. "We know that is probably the best quarterback of the last 10 or 20 years, bottom line."

Said Manning, "It's always a great challenge playing against No. 52."

But Lewis, unlike Manning, is no longer at the height of his powers. Any objective observer - layman or expert - can see that age has slowed Lewis' considerable gifts. Although he led the AFC in tackles this season with 134, he is not the sideline-to-sideline tornado of focused fury that he was during the peak of his career.

But after watching the Ravens' 33-14 throttling of the New England Patriots Sunday - a game in which Lewis had 13 tackles, including a sack so vicious it looked as if Tom Brady had been trampled under the hooves of a thundering bull - you realize it might not matter that he is not as swift or as quick as he once was.

"I've never been around a better defensive player," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "But more than that, what a great leader, what a great guy, what a great mentor to our younger guys. I think he plays really hard and he never takes a play off. He's on the field every single play. He's not 26 anymore, but he has a bank of knowledge about the game. When a guy has that kind of a foundation football-wise, his study means that much more. He watches tape and he sees a lot more than that 26-year-old would see."

What's clear is that Lewis, 34, still believes he is the same player, the one who led the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory in the 2000 regular season, and is convinced he can do it again a decade later.

After all these years, he remains the public face of the Ravens' franchise, the one player remaining who connects the glories of the past with the expectations of the present. Every week, a different opposing fan base casts him as the villain - but it only seems to feed his desire.

And in football, a sport in which emotion plays a larger role than can be measured, especially in the postseason, that might be enough for Lewis to cheat Father Time a bit longer. That pre-game, in-your-face, chest-thumping sermon that Lewis delivers to his teammates can be viewed a bit differently these days. It's still his version of leadership, his call to arms. But it is also Lewis' weekly ritual in which he convinces himself, and cajoles himself, into believing he can still be great.

"He has a great way to kind of amp up his team and get them to play a whole other level," Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. "I think a lot of that has to do with that he just has an inner drive that's uncommon and a skill level that's unmatched."

Lewis' 14th season in a Ravens uniform has not been perfect. The Ravens defense has, at times, been as shaky as it's ever been during his tenure in Baltimore. And he has, on occasion, looked old, most recently when he had just five tackles in the Ravens' 23-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.

But as turbulent as the season has been for the team, it has been essentially controversy-free for Lewis, a rarity when compared with recent years. No contract concerns, no feuding with former teammates, no criticism of the head coach on his radio show, no locker-room division.

"I'm just impressed with our whole defense, period, with having so many key starters out," Lewis said. Terrell "Suggs has been out, Ed [Reed] has been out and all these things, but you have all of these different guys who've really taken the time to say: 'Ray, come study with me. Show me how to do this, show me how to do that. Tell me what they're doing here, tell me what they're doing there.' And I think that's the thing that's most attractive, more than anything, is just how much these guys study. Because football doesn't change. Football will never change."

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