AFC title: Ray's last dance?
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- You again!
Ray versus Tom.
Tom versus Ray.
Oh yeah, the Ravens and Patriots, along for the ride. Ray Lewis' last ride, one Tom Brady hopes to cut short on Sunday in the AFC championship game.
A year after a brutal last-minute loss in Foxborough, Baltimore is back, looking for a reversal of fortune and a spot in the Super Bowl for the first time since winning it in 2001. If the Ravens fall again, Lewis' superb 17-year career as the NFL's best linebacker of his era will end as he retires.
Brady, the most successful quarterback of his time, has no thoughts of retirement -- or of failing to make his sixth Super Bowl in the last dozen seasons.
That Lewis and Brady will bring a mutual admiration society to Gillette Stadium adds some flattery to what has become an intense rivalry.
"Both sides understand the game of football," Lewis said. "There have been some great, great rivalries and we have one of those going on with New England now."
Adds Brady: "It's really a pleasure to play against him. He's really been so consistent over the years and durable and tough. He's so instinctive."
At the forefront in this rematch, naturally, is Brady, who has won three NFL titles and would be only the second player to reach six Super Bowls by leading New England (13-4) past Baltimore (12-6). And there's Lewis, the most dominant inside linebacker the league has seen since the heyday of Mike Singletary.
Brady is all about composure, accuracy and even sophistication. Lewis brings aggression, ferocity and mayhem to the field.
An odd couple, indeed, but one that appreciates the attributes of the other.
"He doesn't give up hardly any plays, makes a ton of tackles," Brady said of the 37-year-old Lewis, who missed 10 games with a right triceps injury, but has been a tackling machine in the postseason. "He's great in the pass game, great in the run game. He blitzes well, like he did a few years ago. He's really a playmaker for them, so they give him an opportunity to make those plays. You see when he makes a play, their whole sideline gets really amped-up."
No one can be more amped-up for this opportunity than Lewis. No one, of course, raises his teammates to a more fevered pitch than Lewis.
But what the Ravens need Sunday is discipline to go with the fervor. Otherwise, Brady will pick them apart.
For all the energy and clutch plays Baltimore's defense has made since Lewis returned, it remains vulnerable because it's three biggest stars -- Lewis, safety Ed Reed, outside LB Terrell Suggs -- are aging and not nearly 100 percent healthy.
There's also the exhaustion factor: The Ravens have played one more postseason game than the Patriots, and went into the sixth period last week at Denver.
"In all honesty, I thought we were as fresh in the overtime game the other day as we looked at any time during the year," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "I think at this point in time during the year, too, everybody is a little fatigued.
"But at the same time, your adrenaline is pumping, and the emotion is a lot different now than it is if you're playing the seventh ballgame of the season playing 87 plays. It's just different. You've got to find a way to pull a little more out of you, and I think the guys do. I think everybody does that -- both teams."
The leaders of those teams, Brady and Lewis, aren't exactly one-man bands. Indeed, Brady seems to make everyone into a star -- witness third-string running back Shane Vereen's three touchdowns against Houston -- and Lewis isn't the best Raven on defense right now, end Paul Kruger is.
Baltimore must deal with Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez, Brady's top targets -- star tight end Rob Gronkowski is out with a broken left arm -- and 1,000-yard rusher Stevan Ridley. The Ravens need to find a way to penetrate a line that yielded only 27 sacks, second in the AFC.
Kruger (nine sacks in regular season, 2 1/2 in playoffs) is the main threat, and Suggs has been coming on since returning from an Achilles tendon injury. DT Haloti Ngata is a handful, as good as his counterpart with the Patriots, Vince Wilfork.
With only 13 interceptions during the season, the Ravens weren't a big threat to steal the ball. But they got two off Peyton Manning last week and one on Andrew Luck the previous game.
It also must be remembered that Ravens QB Joe Flacco outplayed Brady in the 23-20 AFC championship defeat last January. Flacco and receivers Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones have been particularly dangerous on deep balls in this postseason.
No matter who finds his way into the spotlight, though, he won't shove aside Lewis or Brady.
Lewis thinks it is an honor to face Manning and then Brady in consecutive weeks. Then again, it's a necessity if Lewis is going to end his career hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
"You're talking about arguably the top two or three greatest quarterbacks of all time," Lewis said. "So when you go from Peyton Manning to Tom Brady, you're going from 1A to 1A. It's not like you get a drop-off.
"I'd back up to the same fact we had last week. Is he going to make plays? Absolutely. But you have to play the whole game. You have to be patient enough to let them make plays and move on to the next play. ... They play chess matches.
"Playing against Brady and just watching him sometimes, you're always in awe on watching on how good he really is."
Better not watch too much, Ray. Or retirement will be at hand.
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