It's tempting to look at the possibility that Ray Lewis will be sidelined for Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals and wonder if the Ravens are mentally tough enough to take care of business at this very important juncture in the season.
It's also tempting to consider the point where Lewis is in his amazing career and wonder how long he can keep fooling Father Time.
Of course, as John Harbaugh pointed out on Friday, we're talking about Ray Lewis, which means that none of the age-appropriate physical standards apply, and we're talking about the Ravens, who are about as emotionally predictable as a teenager on prom night.
First things first. The loss of Lewis would be significant on at least two levels, since he is the motivational leader of the team as well as a slam-dunk Hall of Famer who relays the signals that come in from the sideline and helps set the defense. Those are not small things going into a divisional showdown that will make the difference between first and third place in Week 11.
Lewis has long been the guy who fires up the crowd with his signature intro dance and the one who brings the team together for a little pre-kickoff fire and brimstone. Theoretically, he could still do both of those things on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium even if he is not able to play against the Bengals, but it probably wouldn't have quite the same effect if he isn't going lead them onto the field.
Nobody has ruled him out of the game, by the way, but there have been reports that the toe injury that kept him out of practice all week might be even more than a one-game proposition, which would be a particularly troubling development with the Ravens set to play both the Bengals and the surprising San Francisco 49ers in a span of five days.
Lewis is officially listed as "questionable" on the final injury report, which usually indicates about a 50-50 chance of playing, but there's always the possibility that the Ravens are just being coy to complicate the Bengals' game-planning. The company line is that there is no way to predict what Lewis will do, so don't be surprised if he pulls a Willis Reed and jacks everybody up by playing through the pain.
If he doesn't, it ought to tell you something about the severity of the injury, because Lewis loves the big stage and he also loves playing against former defensive mentor Marvin Lewis. The Ravens may think it best to let him heal until Thursday night's nationally televised Thanksgiving game against the 49ers, but Harbaugh would be the first to tell you that Lewis will be the one to decide whether he plays.
My guess is that he'll fill his usual team leader role and play sparingly. That would allow the Ravens to maintain some emotional equilibrium at a time when they need to flip the switch back to the "On" position in their on-again, off-again season. It would also allow defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano to work with some other linebacker combinations and adjust quickly if Lewis' mobility is impaired to the point where he is a liability.
The Ravens have not revealed much about the injury, except for Harbaugh's comment on Friday that it's not a "serious, serious thing," but we're talking about a foot issue at a position that puts a huge premium on leverage and lateral quickness.
No one should ever doubt the importance of Lewis to one of the NFL's elite defensive units, but the Ravens are not exactly short on leadership on that side of the ball. They have enough depth at the linebacker position to weather the short-term loss of one cornerstone player, and they should be able to handle the Bengals if they can deliver a balanced offensive attack and avoid another special teams meltdown.
There's a larger question brewing here, to be sure. You don't have to remind Ravens fans that it was a toe injury that led to the retirement of terrific offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden after the 2007 season, or that Lewis already has played 3 ½ years longer than the guy he was chosen behind in the first round of the 1996 draft.
Lewis is 36 and he can't play forever, but he can still play at a high level and he has a team-leading 68 tackles to prove it. Whether his first significant physical setback since 2007 is a sign that it's time to start jockeying for a role on "The NFL Today" remains to be seen, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.
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