Sunday's playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts could be the last for one of the greatest linebackers in football history, but the Ray Lewis who will dance out of the tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium — that is, assuming he does play —- has not, this season, resembled the Ray Lewis of lore.
For the better part of 17 seasons in the NFL, Lewis seemed to — one pancaked ball-carrier at a time — take out his frustrations with the critics who said he was too small to play the linebacker position.
The numbers speak for themselves.
The former University of Miami standout has been selected to 13 Pro Bowls. He is one of six players to be named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year multiple times (in 2000 and 2003).
According to Elias Sports Bureau, only one linebacker, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Jack Ham, has more career takeaways (53) than Lewis (50).
He is the only player in NFL history with 40 sacks and 30 interceptions. And Lewis has played in 228 of the 272 regular-season games in Ravens history.
Perhaps most important, Lewis was named Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXV, the team's only title.
"My legacy, I tell you, like I said, accolade-wise, whatever … I've done it. I've done it," Lewis said Wednesday. "I used to sit back, and I used to marvel, rest in peace, at Junior Seau's legacy, and how he had his run, how he ran at it, Pro Bowl after Pro Bowl after Pro Bowl. I'm like, 'Wow. Who does that? How can you be at that level?' And then I started making my own mark."
Lewis played well enough in recent years to continue getting invitations to the Pro Bowl, and his peers named him as one of the NFL's top 20 players prior to the start of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons. But critics began to openly question his usefulness to the Ravens defense this season.
Lewis dropped more than 20 pounds in the offseason in an attempt to keep up with pass-happy NFL offenses, but at age 37, he was understandably less explosive than he was in his prime.
"I know he has lost a step," ESPN analyst and former NFL offensive lineman Mark Schlereth said on the air Wednesday. "I know he's not the player that he once was. I still look at him as a great player and emotional leader, and all the different things that he brings to an organization. … There's just something about Ray Lewis. You expect Sundays to see [No.] 52 out there —- pregame, getting everybody going. Then, during the course of the game, just flying around making plays."
The Ravens are 5-1 with Lewis in the lineup this season, but statistically, they have fared better without him.
In six games with Lewis, the Ravens allowed 396.7 total yards per game (136.5 rushing yards and 260.2 passing yards). But in the 10 games since then, the Ravens — 5-5 during that span — allowed just 323.5 yards per game (114.6 rushing yards and 208.9 passing yards).
In 2011, the Ravens were 4-0 with Lewis not playing, allowing just 12.5 points per game.
The Ravens, however, have allowed fewer points per game this season with Lewis (19.7) than without him (23), and it is not fair to pin on Lewis all of the blame for the early struggles of a Ravens defense that was integrating four new starters as the season began.
But Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe were solid together at the inside linebacker spots after Lewis tore his right triceps in Week 6.
McClain is now on injured reserve with a neck injury, forcing Josh Bynes, who started the season on the practice squad, into the starting lineup. Brendon Ayanbadejo's role has also increased later in the season.
"We are playing fundamentally a lot better. We are communicating better. We are on the same page better," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of the improved defensive play down the stretch. "Our coaches have done a great job of continuing to coach — every single week, every little thing."
Meanwhile, as the Ravens stumbled into the playoffs, Lewis was rehabbing his torn triceps with what he called the "craziest 12 weeks of just training" that he has ever put himself through. He is confident that his right arm is strong enough to hold off 300-pound blockers and make tackles.
"I feel good. I feel healthy, and I feel great, actually," said Lewis, who has 57 tackles this season.
Both Lewis and Harbaugh were noncommittal about his status for Sunday's wild-card round game against the Colts. If he does suit up, it is also unclear how much he'll play.
But Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata expects Lewis to give his best effort should he play.
"He's going to be the normal Ray Lewis out there," said Ngata, who has lined up in front of Lewis since 2006. "He's going to give his all and play with a great passion, and that's going to be him."
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