The Ravens are prepared to go into Sunday's AFC North showdown against the Cincinnati Bengals without their emotional leader and top tackler. However, they learned long ago that it would be foolish to rule out middle linebacker Ray Lewis too early.
Lewis, 36, missed a third straight day of practice Friday with a toe injury he sustained in last week's 22-17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, and he appears likely to be sidelined Sunday, if not longer. But his history and pain tolerance have prompted the Ravens to list him as questionable for the game against Cincinnati at M&T Bank Stadium.
A questionable listing indicates that a player has about a 50 percent chance of playing.
"Ray is Ray, you know? You can't count Ray out," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "There could be reports out there and you guys could turn over some rocks and figure it out and ask, and think you have something, and you might have something. But you might not. We're talking about Ray. We'll find out on Sunday, really."
Harbaugh said Lewis' injury, which was diagnosed after a consultation with a foot specialist Thursday, is not a "serious, serious thing" and is something that he could possibly play through.
Lewis, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, has not missed a start since being sidelined for the last two games of the 2007 regular season because of a finger injury. He has started 57 consecutive regular-season games.
"Ray has had shoulders dislocated and he's done 35 push-ups on the sidelines to prove that he can go," Harbaugh said. "He's had hamstrings that he's torn off the bone because he went ahead [and played] when he shouldn't have. I've been updated on some of his history. That's Ray Lewis. The injury is not any kind of a serious, serious thing, or career-threatening. I think I saw a report that it was career-threatening this morning. No, it's not. Ray may not go, he may go. The Bengals will have to prepare for him either way, so it really doesn't matter."
Lewis has been unavailable for comment the past two days. He spoke with the media Wednesday as part of his normal schedule. However, nothing was known about his injury at that point, and Lewis didn't bring it up. He also didn't appear to walk with a limp either to or from the podium.
When Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs was asked about Lewis potentially not playing, he quickly pointed out that his long-time teammate hasn't been ruled out yet.
"If he plays, that's going to be great for us," Suggs said. "But if he doesn't, we're going to miss him. But I think we'll be fine."
Lewis has a team-leading 68 tackles to go along with two sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles. Brendon Ayanbadejo, a Pro-Bowl selection on special teams who has been in on 12 tackles and has a half sack this season, is listed next at middle linebacker on the Ravens' depth chart. The Ravens also could move inside linebacker Jameel McClain to the middle or use Dannell Ellerbe in Lewis' spot.
"We are very confident in our linebackers, and we're very confident in our defense," Harbaugh said. "You go out there as a defense is what you do. We've had plenty of injuries all year. We've had lots of guys hurt throughout the course of the year, and we'll play with the guys that we have. We have a very good group. We have a very good defense and we'll play well."
Ellerbe has been inactive in four straight games and in five of the past six with a hamstring injury. However, he has been a full participant at practice over the past two days. While he's listed as questionable like Lewis, the feeling around the team is that Ellerbe has a much better chance of playing.
"He's progressed well," Harbaugh said of Ellerbe. "It's another situation where we're just going to have to see how it goes. You just don't know. Hamstrings are very tricky. We've got other guys that we've brought back a little bit early, and they've re-injured it. Anthony Allen is an example of that. It's going to be something that we're just going to have to see, really, on Sunday. I think he got through the practices pretty well, but until you open it up and feel right before the game that it's not going to grab or pull, you don't really know."
Ellerbe, who has started four games over the past three seasons, spoke not only like somebody who plans on playing Sunday, but somebody who expects to have a prominent role.
"Whether I'm coming off an injury or not, I'm going to be ready to go," Ellerbe said. "I'm just happy to be out there playing. It's unfortunate that they're saying that Ray might not be playing. If he's playing, I'm going to be ready to sub in to help him if he needs to come out. If he's not playing, I'm going to be ready to go. It's always pressure when you're trying to come in and fill in for somebody as great as Ray Lewis. But I can't let that get to me. I'm just going to go out there and do what I do best, and that's go out there and play and make plays and have fun."
Ayanbadejo acknowledged that it will take "three or four of us" to replace Lewis on Sunday, but he feels the Ravens have the necessary talent in place.
"He's our spiritual leader, our emotional leader, so the young guys are going to have to step up and they're ready to do that," Ayanbadejo said. "Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe, they're ready to step in and hopefully, there won't be a letdown on Sunday if Ray's not playing. They'll fill in his place, and we won't miss a beat."