Ray Lewis' trademark instincts kicked in again Saturday, a display of football savvy punctuated by the Ravens inside linebacker slamming Denver Broncos rookie running back Ronnie Hillman to the ground.
During the third quarter of the Ravens' dramatic 38-35 double-overtime victory in the AFC divisional round, Lewis eluded the blocking attempt of towering offensive tackle Ryan Clady to chase down Hillman for a loss of three yards.
As the retiring two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year tries to end his legendary career by earning a second Super Bowl ring, Lewis isn't just along for the ride. Heading into Sunday's AFC championship game against the New England Patriots, the 37-year-old leads the Ravens with 30 tackles through two playoff games.
Besides the emotional impact that Lewis has provided since returning from a torn right triceps that required surgery and sidelined him for 10 games, he's also pulling his weight on the field.
"He's a guy that still plays the game at a high level," Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones said. "You would think he was 21, 22, watching him out there, flying around, making plays. Why not play hard for a guy like that? It makes you so comfortable on defense to know that you have a guy behind you that's a stud, that's going to make such a huge play and can make so many plays. I told him to stay a few more years."
Although Lewis has to wear a bulky brace to protect his right arm and is no longer as mobile as he used to be in pass coverage and in pursuit of runs outside the tackles, he's still making an impact. Lewis made a game-high 17 tackles against the Broncos after finishing with 13 tackles during a 24-9 wild-card win over the Indianapolis Colts in his emotional final game at M&T Bank Stadium.
"He's so instinctive, he doesn't give up hardly any plays, makes a ton of tackles," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "He's really a playmaker for them. You see when he makes a play, their whole sideline gets really amped up. You always have to know where No. 52 is at."
Despite how he's performed this postseason, Lewis insists he has no intentions of changing his mind about his decision to walk away from the game after 17 seasons. And teammates and team officials have reiterated that Lewis is serious about his pending retirement and won't reverse his decision like former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre repeatedly did.
"No, I can't come back," Lewis said Wednesday. "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.
"After the Denver game, me and Ray [Rice] just sat there and we hugged on the field. He grabbed me kind of hard. I was telling him to let me go, but it's just something that's special. To end it, wherever it ends, then so be it."
Lewis' final ride isn't over yet, though.
The Ravens square off with the Patriots on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium, the same place where they fell short last year in the AFC title game.
And Lewis regards this latest encounter with Brady as an appropriate scenario.
"If you write it up, there's no better way to write it up," he said. "We all felt the same way leaving there last year, that we had an opportunity to win that game. If you were going to go to the Super Bowl, then go back at New England again.
"We know each other very well. Every game we play is always those classic games. It comes down to that last play, that last drive. I think they know what we are bringing, and we know what they bring."
Lewis clearly still has an innate feel for diagnosing plays. On Saturday alertly pounced on a ball that Peyton Manning fumbled, but the recovery was nullified by a penalty.
"He definitely can play multiple more years, but I think he understands that it's time to move on," Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "It's just great to see him play at a level that I don't think a lot of linebackers can be doing now. I'm just humbled and definitely lucky to play with someone like that."
However, Lewis allowed eight receptions for 97 yards on eight passes thrown in his direction in Denver. According to Pro Football Focus, Lewis has surrendered 14 receptions for 177 yards on 16 throws in his direction during the two playoff games, with quarterback compiling a 105.9 passer rating against him.
It's an understandable regression for an older player still playing at an age when most linebackers have long since hung up their cleats. Overall, though, the reviews for Lewis' play have been solid.
He's been particularly clutch in 19 career playoff games with 215 career tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and five forced fumbles.
"Ray has played well, that's the most important thing," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "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."
The mere fact that Lewis is back on a football field at his age following such a serious injury has amazed his teammates, and in the locker room he is spoken of with reverence.
"He's still got it," said outside linebacker Albert McClellan, who grew up in Lewis' hometown of Lakeland, Fla. "He's still running around. People are still afraid of a head-on collision with Ray. He's a threat on the field with his thinking ability and the way he knows the game."
After 2,643 regular-season tackles, 41.5 sacks, 31 interceptions, 20 forced fumbles and 20 fumble recoveries, Lewis wants to end his ride in New Orleans with another Super Bowl. That's why he endured a grueling rehabilitation regimen to get his arm healthy enough for one more run at a Lombardi Trophy.
"I think one thing Ray is doing is he's showing people, 'I can overcome,'" strong safety Bernard Pollard said. "He's showing, 'I can do what you say I can't do.'"
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