By Stephen Stone (@SrStoneSports)
Cold Hard Football Facts AFC North Sniper
Everyone catch their breath yet? Today’s Baltimore vs. Denver epic is why we watch sports. It’s why we put up with BS like steroids, contract disputes, lockouts and off-field arrests. It was pure football today, all 77 minutes of it.
Before Jacoby Jones’ miraculous touchdown that tied the game with under a minute left, we began to eulogize Ray Lewis’ career, because it looked like it was all over.
Then Jones scored, Peyton Manning pulled a Brett Favre in overtime and Justin Tucker kicked the Ravens into the team’s fourth ever and second-consecutive AFC championship game.
Ray Lewis is going to live to fight another day. His swan song is not yet over. If he wants to go out on top and ride off into the sunset in a blaze of glory, he has to win only two more games.
Here's a look at some of Lewis's career accomplishments, even though we'll have another opportunity to look back on it (whether it’s next Sunday or three weeks from tomorrow) because there are still a hundred things to say about the man.
Lewis is the leader of Baltimore’s “bend but don’t break” philosophy
Since 2004, the first year of the Cold, Hard Football Facts, the Ravens have finished in the top five in the league in Bendability (my favorite defensive Quality Stat) six times. They finished outside the top five four times.
In those five top-five years, Lewis played an average of 15.4 games per season. In the four years that Baltimore finished below the top five, Lewis played an average of 9.5 games per season. Are you shocked? Didn't think so.
Lewis’ presence alone scared offenses, especially as they got closer to the end zone. He refused to let his opponents score. No matter how many stars Baltimore groomed on defense, no one matched Lewis’ intensity as teams got close to scoring. Whenever he was out of the game, the opposition felt as if it had a better chance to score.
Every multi-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year winner is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This isn’t a lobby to get Lewis into Canton. He'll be fine in that department. But it's interesting to note the elite company he's with right now:
Bruce Smith, Reggie Rice, Mike Singletary, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Greene and of course Ray Lewis. That’s the list.
Now, it’s not groundbreaking to point out that guys who won multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards are all-time great defensive players, but the level of badass grit in this list is astounding.
If there’s any doubt that Lewis should belong on the list of the best defensive players in league history, that’s all the evidence needed to reverse that sentiment.
Lewis led the Ravens in tackles and sparked a big defensive effort.
Did you think he’d go out like a chump in his last stand? Did you think he wasn’t salivating to take on Peyton Manning - a man he shares real estate with atop the “best players of this generation” list - for a shot to go to the AFC championship game?
Lewis finished with with 17 total tackles (10 solo, seven assists) and helped stop Peyton Manning when he needed to be stopped. Yes, the Broncos scored 35 points today, but only 21 were scored against the Ravens defense, a unit that scored a touchdown itself. Lewis’ mental and physical presence made the rest of the unit better, and that’s one of the reasons why Baltimore is moving on.
Lewis has now won 12 playoff games.
For comparison, Mike Singletary won only six playoff games. Lawrence Taylor won 10. Ray Nitschke won nine (although that’s kind of like comparing Derek Jeter’s playoff stats with Joe DiMaggio’s, but whatever.) The point is, Lewis’ play has led Baltimore to more playoff victories than the rest of the all-time great linebackers.
You have to give credit to some of the guys on offense. Flacco made the plays when he had to make them today. But throughout the history of the Ravens, Ray Lewis’ play has been the difference between winning and losing. He's won a playoff game in each of the team's last five years. It isn't a bad way to end a career, but I have a feeling Lewis won't be satisfied unless he ends his career with 14 career playoff wins.
Lewis ain’t done yet.
Baltimore lost in New England in last year’s AFC championship game. The team lost in Houston earlier this season. So regardless of who wins tomorrow, Baltimore will head into next Sunday as a classic road underdog. But things feel different right now.
First, consider the Texans, who have very little chance to win tomorrow. When the Ravens lost in Houston, it was their first game without Lewis. They were banged up and the Texans were firing on all cylinders. Lewis is back now, Baltimore is healthy and its Houston that is limping around and will continue to be, even if they pull off an upset tomorrow.
Meanwhile, the Ravens know they can go into New England and win. That gives them an advantage over most of the Patriots’ victims. They aren’t afraid. Last year, a missed catch and terrible kick did the Ravens in. Both Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff are gone and have been replaced by better players. Also, you could argue the Patriots aren’t as good this year as they were last year. Plus, the Ravens already beat the Patriots this year.
Baltimore should enjoy this ride it is on. Ray Lewis should cherish every moment he’s still on a football field. But the team shouldn’t be satisfied. There’s still a lot of football left to play.