For one of next Sunday's Super Bowl teams, the formula for reaching the title game has been a swarming, opportunistic defense led by an inspirational linebacker.
Of course, that would be the Chicago Bears and Brian Urlacher.
It could easily have been the Ravens and Ray Lewis.
Last week, Lewis received word that he'll be headed to his eighth Pro Bowl. As the first alternate at his position, Lewis will be replacing the Denver Broncos' injured Al Wilson in Hawaii.
The Ravens' fiery inside linebacker is the first to point out that the Pro Bowl distinction, while an honor, is something of a consolation prize.
"The saddest thing in the world is to be at that Pro Bowl and having a good time and drinking a mai tai and watching a Super Bowl champion walk over. That's a little different swagger," Lewis said. "I've [been] there both ways [and] I promise you, their [mai tais ] taste a little bit better."
After a 13-3 regular season, the Ravens' playoff loss to the other Super Bowl team, the Indianapolis Colts, was a sour dram for all the Ravens to swallow, but especially so for Lewis. After all, next season will be his 12th in the NFL.
"He's on the latter part of his career, so it's all about winning for him," said fellow linebacker Adalius Thomas, a Pro Bowl selection as a starter. "Now, he's about teaching other guys how to see things."
Thomas' reflection sums up Lewis' evolution. Although still the Ravens' lion king on defense, he's more apt to be leading his teammates on the hunt rather than attacking by himself. Formerly the archetypal middle linebacker, Lewis has embraced his shifting role within a defense that was the most difficult in the NFL for opposing teams to prepare for.
In part, that's the result of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan's complex, swirling scheme that produced the NFL's top-rated defense in 2006.
"Ray has become a puzzle piece in a very effective defense rather than the singular entity that drives the defense," said Greg Cosell, executive producer of NFL Films' NFL Matchup, a highly analytical dissection of pro football tactics.
In Ryan's approach, players break out of their positional stereotypes. Linemen wind up in coverage. Linebackers become safeties. Anyone might blitz.
"We just don't sit in a base 4-3 [alignment] anymore. I can go from a middle linebacker to a strong safety to a rush defensive end to a defensive tackle," Lewis said. "Rex is moving me around so much, people can't just put their hands on me."
But while the role might change, the player doesn't.
"What you can't discount about Ray are his instincts," Cosell said. "What makes a player great are his instincts. Ray may not get there quite as fast as he used to, but he knows what he's seeing and he can get people lined up."
A shift in style
That there is more sage and a little less rage in the 31-year-old Lewis is felt by those close to him.
Keon Lattimore, Lewis' younger brother and a running back for the University of Maryland, says he has noticed some of the changes. Lewis has been as much guardian as brother to Lattimore.
"The lectures that he used to give have become talks, full-blown conversations," Lattimore said. "If I have a problem, he's still the first person I'm going to go to. But I think now, if he has a problem, he'll come to me about it."
As Thomas said, Lewis sees himself as a locker room mentor.
"It shows how comfortable you are with who you are," Thomas said of Lewis, a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer when he becomes eligible. "Nobody is bigger than the game. The game continues to go on - with or without you, no matter how big your name is. So you want to pass on that education and perhaps you can teach some young guy not to make the mistakes that you made."
On a football field in November, Lewis - in full throat - was making Thomas' point.
But rather than steeling the Ravens for a defensive stand in boisterous M&T; Bank Stadium, Lewis was preaching to the wide-eyed Dunbar High football team in the East Baltimore twilight.
Lewis encouraged, challenged, cajoled and mapped out how the players should prepare for a big game, day by day, hour by hour. Going to class, practice, working out, praying, even drinking enough water, Lewis spelled it out in detail. Manage your time wisely, Lewis was saying, and you'll manage your life.
"If you don't do that, everything will catch up to you because there's just too much going on to distract you," Lewis said recently when reminded of his talk to the Dunbar kids. "When I leave [practice], I meet with my personal trainer, we got pushups, we got sit-ups. After that, I call my kids. After I call my kids, then I have my [football] film study. After my film study, I might catch a quick movie for an hour." Then it's to sleep.
He admits to a regimentation that borders on obsession. "My mother will tell you, don't ever get me out of my schedule," Lewis said. "I give my family my time but I need my schedule. At home, if a shoe is out of place, if my bed isn't made right, I'm like, 'No!' "
The point, he says, is that's the way to achieve anything grand.
"Greatness isn't one big thing," Lewis said. "Greatness is a lot of small things done well."
That extends to Lewis' relentless workouts. They form the foundation, he said, to everything he accomplishes on NFL Sundays.
"I tell my brother all the time that everyone at this level has talent," Lewis said. "It's work that separates people."
Lattimore lives with his older brother in Owings Mills and during the offseason goes to Lewis' Florida home in Boca Raton.
"He's a great teacher and he makes the connection between whatever we're doing and football," Lattimore said. "For instance, when we're working out and we've done hundreds of pushups, he'll say, 'It's the fourth quarter, everyone else is on their knees, you keep going.' And it works."
Lewis relishes talking about working out, invoking one of the game's most hallowed names, Walter Payton, whose grueling runs up a 92-foot hill in a landfill in suburban Chicago are now part of his legend.
"These young guys don't understand what work is anymore," Lewis said. "Walter Payton wasn't the fastest, he didn't run the best 40 [-yard dash], he didn't out-bench-press everybody, but you could never find anyone to outwork him."
The Ravens' linebacker has his own version of Payton's hill, an old ski run at Oregon Ridge Park in north Baltimore County, a 140-foot incline that Lewis attacks in the offseason.
"Can you be in the fourth quarter the same way you were in the first?" Lewis said. "Can your abs, can your arms, can your legs carry you in the fourth quarter like they did in the first quarter?"
That's part of the message he tries to deliver in the Ravens' locker room.
"When I come to these young guys, with the experiences that I've been through, I want to make sure that I can either help them or at least help them not hurt themselves," Lewis said.
At the center of it all
Episodically, Lewis' off-field experiences have been a metaphor of his playing experience - meaning in the middle of mayhem.
By now, his association with a double murder in Atlanta in early 2000 that resulted in Lewis' admission to misdemeanor obstruction of justice is a well-known story.
More recently, though, 2005 was painful for Lewis and Ravens fans. As the team struggled to a 6-10 finish, Lewis missed the final 10 games with a hamstring tear and appeared oddly estranged from the team. Then there were his pointed offseason comments about the Ravens needing to do specific things to improve. To some, the remarks smacked of petulance and were motivated by self-interest.
Lewis has insisted that he was persecuted for being candid and, in actuality, was trying to help his team.
"When the warrior goes out and says, 'I will fight any battle,' they will scream in the stadium for any battle that you fight, 'Wow, he's courageous.' But if the warrior comes off the field and fights the same battle, you kill him because now he's selfish, he's talking about money. [But] it's the same exact fight," Lewis said.
"I would have been a hypocrite to do the things I do, tell my teammates to keep fighting and do the dancing, then after the season, say being mediocre is OK. If I don't go to Ozzie [Newsome, general manager] and look him in the eye and say we need to get [quarterback] Steve McNair and we need a defensive tackle, if I'm not willing to speak up, I'm not being who I am and I'm a hypocrite. I wasn't trying to hurt my organization, I was trying to help it. I was trying to give my team and my city something they didn't have at the time. Hope."
This past season, Lewis shared in the turnaround, regaining his familiar spot on the defensive stat sheet as the team's leading tackler.
Although he missed two games when blood needed to be drained from his back, he was credited with 164 tackles (106 of them solo), five sacks, two interceptions, nine passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
It just may be that Ryan's defense is the best thing that could have happened to Lewis' career. Despite the 6-foot-1, 250-pound player's superb conditioning - his daily regimen can consist of 1,000 sit-ups and 1,000 pushups - a decade of absorbing the impact of more than 1,500 collisions has had to have taken its toll.
Still, Ryan insists Lewis remains at the top of his game.
"Think about it. He was the best player in the league in a standard 4-3. He was the best player in the league in a 3-4 under [former defensive coordinator] Mike Nolan. And I think he's still the best player in the league in a really unconventional defense," Ryan said. "I know where he is in his career, but he can still match up against any running back or tight end in the league. He can still blitz from the middle or the outside. And I'm telling you, everyone still has to keep track of him."
If some around the NFL no longer regard Lewis as the unquestioned top player at his position, or even on his team, it seems not to be an issue for him. Thomas and strong safety Ed Reed were named starters on the AFC Pro Bowl squad and linebacker Terrell Suggs and cornerback Chris McAlister were selected as reserves before Lewis' recent promotion.
"I don't want to be ranked No. 1; I just want to be the general," Lewis said.
And after the disappointing loss to the Colts two weeks ago, the Ravens' linebacker insisted on looking forward and dismissed concerns about time running out for a Ravens roster on which some stars - including him - have arrived at what's considered the latter stages of their NFL careers.
"The bottom line is what we did as a defense, nobody expected that. What we did, winning the AFC North, nobody expected that," Lewis said. "So to say that the window is closing, I think the window is just opening for the things that we're trying to do."