The way the Ravens finished the regular season, many doubted that they’d present much of a Super Bowl threat.
Four losses in five games will do that. Yet, Baltimore is perhaps the story of the playoffs, topping two of the NFL’s hottest teams to advance to their second straight AFC championship game.
Linebacker Ray Lewis’ impending retirement has enhanced that story, but how much has it actually fueled the playoff run?
The Ravens are divided about how much of an emotional impact Lewis’ final ride has had. Running back Ray Rice, Lewis’ lockermate, is squarely in the corner that the team is being fueled by Lewis. Asked how good it feels to have a chance to avenge last year’s AFC championship loss to the Patriots, Rice said Lewis adds a different dimension this time around.
“I always looked at it as a different year, but to have that opportunity again really feels good this time around. We are dealing with always a ‘last’ around here. This is Ray Lewis’ last hurrah,” Rice said. “You are looking at their coaches, they are coming back next year. Our General, our captain - this is it for him. If you want to call it riding that emotional high, emotions, everything, of course we are, because we are dealing with something that is going to be a last.
“Every time that we’ve seen someone in the playoffs - the Colts, coach (Chuck) Pagano, we love him, but he’s back to coach next year. Peyton Manning is coming back to play next year. Ray Lewis is not. That’s what he said. He made that decision final. I think we all just put our pride aside, and if we are going to ride it, we are going ride it. But we are going to go out there and give it our best shot for our guy. He’s done it for us for 17 years and led our guys to one Super Bowl. We speak of it, and it stands right here.
“I’m not taking any credit away from the New England Patriots. They are battle-tested. They have won many Super Bowls. They set the standard on how to win. You think about a guy that has been a pioneer in the NFL, who has changed the way some rules are being written in the game - you can’t hit guys a certain way anymore because of the crushing hits that he has hit, laid over people across the middle. You are talking about a pioneer that has laid a platform for him for the whole NFL. We would like to send him out the right way.”
Quarterback Joe Flacco isn’t so sure that the team is drawing motivation from Lewis’ decision to retire.
“You guys (the media) ask so many questions about it, and you make a big deal about it, but when we’re out there, I think he’s giving us the same emotional high that he always gives us,” Flacco said. “He always tries to jolt us forward a little bit on gameday and get everybody going in his own little way. When we’re out there playing on Sunday, that’s the last thing we’re really thinking about. We’re thinking about what we have to do to win this football game and get the ball in the end zone, and for them, stop the other offense.
“So maybe it’s working more than I would like to admit, but I think that’s something that you kind of sit back and can enjoy after you’ve gotten the win and say, ‘Man, it’s pretty cool that we were able to do that and get another step further and closer to where we want to be for that guy.’”
Perhaps Lewis’ play on the field, and inspirational presence in uniform, has more to do with the Ravens’ turnaround from their late-season slide than his upcoming retirement.
Lewis, who missed the last 10 games of the regular season rehabbing his torn right triceps, has returned to perform at a high level. While he might not be the same player he was 10 years ago speed-wise or physicality-wise, Lewis remains a central defensive figure.
Lewis has made 30 tackles in the Ravens’ first two playoff games, recording game highs in both contests.
“The football impact probably is always the most important thing,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Our team loves to play, and they love Ray, and they love rallying around that. We have great leaders - Ed Reed, Haloti (Ngata), Terrell Suggs, Joe, Ray Rice, Matt Birk, Anquan Boldin. You can go right down the line. But Ray has played well - that’s the most important thing. And he still can play. He’s been playing at a high level for 17 years. He’s a top linebacker in the game right now, at this very moment, so he’s made a difference for us.”
Considering Lewis hadn’t played since Oct. 14, his performances against the Colts and Broncos are all the more impressive. Plus, he’s playing with a bulky brace on his arm, which can’t help him with tackling and disrupting in coverage.
But Lewis said rust hasn’t been an issue at all.
“When you’ve been doing something as long as I’ve been doing it, there is no such thing as ‘knock off the rust,’” he said. “It’s kind of like just coming back in and just getting back in the football movements and things like that. I was doing that the whole time that I was off. I was doing a lot of just specific football training and things like that. Even when I came back, before I even got back to actually playing against the Colts, I came back and ran a bunch of scout team and really got after our offense, got after Joe and started to mess with them a lot. So once you kind of get into that, the only thing else left is just tackling somebody to the ground.”
So, has his play during this playoff run made him second-guess his decision to retire at the end of the season?
“No. No, I knew, probably one of the reasons in my entire career I never spoke about it, but I always said to myself, I would know when it’s time,” Lewis said. “And I knew that every sacrifice I made from the time I hurt myself was to get back with my team to make one last push. Because you look at the Rays, you look at the Joes, and I told them, ‘Everything I am giving you is so your career can go on.’
“One day, my career is definitely going to end, and for the ride to keep going the way it’s going, it’s just awesome. I just never slowed down to really think about, ‘Will you come back?’ No, I can’t come back. My kids are calling for daddy. It’s a great reward to see the sacrifice my babies have made for me, and it’s time that I sacrifice for them. I’m proud that the ride is still going. I look at my teammates, and after the Denver game, me and Ray just sat there, and we hugged on the field. He grabbed me kind of hard. I was kind of telling him to let me go, but it’s just something that is just special. To end it, whenever it ends, then so be it.”