Whenever Ray Lewis got the opportunity this past week, the Ravens' middle linebacker and vocal leader approached one of his younger teammates and delivered a message he learned long ago.
"Whatever opportunity you want to leave, whatever legacy you want to leave, these are the nights you leave it," Lewis told his teammates about the Ravens' coming game. "Not that you don't play hard every other day, but these nights are special. So save the moment, man, and have a great time doing it."
During his 16-year career, Lewis has played on Monday night 13 times. But many of his teammates will experience it for the first time Monday night when the Ravens (4-1) will be at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., to face the struggling Jaguars (1-5) before a national television audience.
For the Jaguars, who face an uncertain future in Jacksonville and whose longtime coach, Jack Del Rio, is firmly on the hot seat, it's an opportunity to break a five-game losing streak and turn around a season that has been defined by offensive struggles and the ushering in of a rookie quarterback.
For the Ravens, a victory would match the Super Bowl-winning team of the 2000 season for the best start in franchise history, and a dominant performance could provide more fodder to those pundits who believe they are the AFC's best team.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh, however, isn't worried about that. Less than 24 hours after his team's 29-14 victory last week over the Houston Texans, the Ravens' third comfortable victory over a projected AFC playoff team, Harbaugh called the Jaguars game "the toughest we have on our schedule." Coach speak certainly, but Harbaugh is also well aware of the struggles road teams have had on Monday night over the years.
"They're going to be desperate, and they're going to want to prove on national TV that they're for real and the team that they really are," Harbaugh said. "We expect to see the very best Jaguar team that there is to offer on Monday night, and that's the team we're getting ready to play."
The Ravens are 7-8 all time on Monday night, and 3-2 in such contests under Harbaugh, who also boasts a 7-4 record in prime-time games since becoming head coach before the 2008 season. The Ravens have not had a home Monday night game since a 27-24 loss to the New England Patriots during the 2007 season.
That has been a sore spot for the organization and its fans, left to wonder why Jacksonville, a team that went 8-8 last year and hasn't had a winning season since 2007, will play host to two Monday night games this season. The Jaguars sold out the Ravens game and avoided a blackout on local television but only after requesting a 24-hour extension from the NFL to sell the 2,000 remaining nonpremium tickets Friday.
Harbaugh, however, steered cleared of the Monday night scheduling complaints and focused on the opportunity the Ravens have.
"Everybody's watching. It's tradition, man. You know, it's 'Monday Night Football.' Probably half of you guys have got it on your phone app, right, the 'Monday Night Football' song?," Harbaugh said during his Wednesday news conference with reporters. "So, we're excited about it. We're looking forward to it. It's a great stadium. The crowd is going to be into it. Both teams are going to be into it."
Ravens running back Ray Rice also welcomed the Monday night stage, saying, "A lot of great plays and legacies have been made on 'Monday Night Football.'"
Rice started a friendship with Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew at the 2009 Pro Bowl. The two are considered among the most dangerous running backs in football as Rice is third in the NFL, averaging 140 all-purpose yards, and Jones-Drew is third in the league with 572 rushing yards. They also are constantly compared to one another because of their small but powerful statures.
"It's actually funny we're going down there playing against them on Monday night," Rice said. "Regardless of their record, they have a great defense, we all know. You sort of have a little battle — myself vs. Jones-Drew. Let's see who comes out as the better running back that day."
The Ravens' defense will certainly have something to say about that. They are third in the league in run defense, allowing just 76.6 yards per game. If the Jaguars can't run the ball, they will be forced to put the game in the hands of rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert, a dubious proposition when you consider the Ravens' history against young signal-callers.
Under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 6-0 against first- or second-year starting quarterbacks, and they haven't lost to a rookie since the Buffalo Bills' Trent Edwards beat them late in the 2007 season. This year's defense under first-year coordinator Chuck Pagano has held teams to an NFL-low 14.2 points per game.
"We've played — in terms of NFL rank the last three weeks — the top three [defenses], but I think there's a clear separation," Del Rio said. "I think this is the best unit that we've played so far, so it's going to be a heck of a challenge for us."
Del Rio was the Ravens' linebackers coach from 1999 to 2001. He still has a picture of the linebacker trio he tutored — Lewis, Jamie Sharper and Peter Boulware — in his office.
On Monday, Del Rio and the rest of the football world will get another opportunity to watch the Ravens' Lewis-led defense, which clearly enjoys the spotlight.
"It is what it is. It's the biggest stage, for our business, in the world," Lewis said. "Everybody is sitting home on that Monday night, and everybody wants to see how good you're doing. Records are sometimes one thing, but when you get on Monday night, it's all about the individual. You know, how can you be great that night? It's where you stick out, where you stand out and where you play as a team and things like that. And that's what makes Monday night special is that everybody — even in the entire league — gets to sit home and watch that one game."