As Ray Lewis strutted out from the tunnel inside M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon, shimmying from left to right and doing his typical pregame dance routine, the capacity crowd decked out in Black and Purple exploded in excitement.
Lewis’ last dance on the field in Baltimore was an emotional ride that saw Joe Flacco and Andrew Luck exchange ugly passes, Ray Rice fumble twice and Anquan Boldin emerge from halftime in full Superman attire — even if only figuratively. Yet, the only constant on the day was Lewis’ fantastic play from start to finish, and that should cause some concern for Peyton Manning and his Broncos teammates.
A healthy Lewis alone is a dangerous weapon for any offense to counter, even for a four- and maybe soon to be five-time NFL MVP, but add in the emotional charge of impending retirement and the Broncos are on notice.
The Ravens rallied around their emotional leader on Sunday, sacking Luck three times, bringing constant pressure on the rookie and forcing him into two turnovers. The end result, a 24-9 victory, should provide enough detail to understand the impact the defense had in the outcome, but Lewis’ return had even greater consequences. He returned the Ravens to their place among championship contenders.
The Ravens’ defense is built to win in the playoffs and they’ve shown that over the past few seasons, but this unit still revolves around Lewis’ play in the middle and he showed that with a game-high 13 tackles on Sunday. With guys like Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata on defense already there’s no lack of talent on that Ravens squad, but adding a player with the talent of Lewis makes them even more dangerous.
The Lewis-led Ravens will now take their show to Denver next week with Manning and the AFC’s No. 1 seed Broncos awaiting them. The Broncos finished the season with one of the NFL’s best offenses, averaging more than 400 yards and 30 points per game, but that won’t faze Lewis and his mates. They’ve all played late into the postseason before, as recently as last year even, and they’ve handled their fair share of potent offenses — hello, New England.
So, while Manning and the Broncos have been resting their achy bones and improving themselves during the bye week, the Ravens were getting back to full strength. Baltimore’s four starting linebackers were on the field together for the first time all season on Sunday, and they looked good, too.
The Ravens are getting right at just the right time, and the motivation of Lewis’ “last ride” should provide an even bigger boost for the team to feed off. Next weekend’s showdown will be a tough one for the Ravens, but with Lewis back on the field and looking good, an upset could be brewing.