OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ray Lewis, for so long, has leaned on the emotional and spiritual elements of football, life and their intersection. Those are what have pushed him to this, the end of his 17th season, the end of his career. He has either one more game — Sunday’s AFC championship game at New England — or two, if his Baltimore Ravens win and advance to the Super Bowl. Swirl all the emotions and spirits together, all that Lewis has meant to his franchise and his city, and it could seem a combustible combination.
“I’ve just been in this calm state,” Lewis said Wednesday, “because at the end of the day, nothing matters unless we go win in New England this week.”
Yet as the Ravens approach the game that will either end Lewis’s career or extend it again, it might be worth casting spirituality aside and leaning on science. Correlation, after all, does not imply causation. Lewis missed the final 10 games of the Ravens’ regular season with a torn triceps, and Baltimore stumbled to the finish, losing four of its final five. Before he returned for the playoffs, Lewis announced he would retire whenever the season ended. In his two appearances since, Baltimore handled Indianapolis at home and then surprised Denver on the road to reach this point.
So along the way has come a predictable yearning to connect Lewis’s final season to Baltimore’s position in the AFC title game, a connection that is inescapable around the Ravens this week even though some Baltimore players say the entire premise is dubious.
“You guys ask so many questions about it, you make a big deal about it,” quarterback Joe Flacco said to an auditorium full of media members Wednesday. “. . .When we’re out there playing on Sunday, that’s the last thing we’re really thinking about.”
As wide receiver Torrey Smith said: “People always say, ‘You want to win it for Ray. You want to win it for Ray.’ We do. But you want to win it for yourself, too. You know what I mean? People kind of forget about that.”
There is no way, around here, to forget about Lewis, regarded as one of the best linebackers ever — 13 times a Pro Bowler, seven times first-team all-pro. His presence has defined the organization for as long as the organization has existed. Wednesday, he recounted the call he received on draft day, 1996, from Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens’ general manager, then and now. His first questions: Do we have a team name? Do we have team colors?
Now, the purple-and-black of the Ravens are part of the fabric of Baltimore. A portion of a street has been renamed “Ray Lewis Way.” His No. 52 jersey rivals the orange-and-black No. 8 worn by Baltimore’s immovable icon, former Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken. Throw him in with Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson, both athletic deities here.
“Who knew that I would be a staple in Baltimore?” Lewis said.
And who knew he would go out this way? When the Ravens lost three straight games to start December, they appeared to be losing their grip on the AFC North. The question then became, “Will Lewis ever play again?” But because of the spirituality, the emotion, that guide him, Lewis said he felt he would be back, that the Ravens would be back.
Last year, when the Ravens lost the AFC title game at New England in a game they could have won — if not for Lee Evans’s dropped pass in the end zone and Billy Cundiff’s shanked short field goal — Lewis gave a rousing speech in the locker room, because giving rousing speeches in the locker room long ago became part of his job description. He told his teammates they would be back. But whether they did or not, he said his teammates shouldn’t let that fate define them.
“Don’t let this game ever dictate your emotions,” Lewis said Wednesday. “When you walk out of this locker room, somebody’s looking for you to be the bigger person. Yeah, we lost this game, but it’s not life.”
At 37, so much of his life has been about football. And yet, that is what’s being overlooked now. Wednesday, New England quarterback Tom Brady discussed the challenges of facing the Ravens with reporters in Foxborough, Mass. “You always have to know where ‘52’ is at,” Brady said.
Lewis had 13 tackles against Indianapolis, 17 more against Denver in a game that went to double overtime.
“That’s the most important thing: He can still play,” Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s been playing at a high level for 17 years. He’s a top linebacker in the game right now, at this very moment.”
Because of that, and because the Ravens have pushed this deep into the playoffs for the third time in the past five years, Lewis was asked whether he has reconsidered his retirement. “No,” he said firmly.
“I always said to myself I would know when it’s time,” he said.
So this is the time. Whether that is a contributing factor in the Ravens’ appearance here — whether Point A can be connected to Point B — can be debated, but it cannot be determined.
“Our general, our captain, this is it,” running back Ray Rice said. “If you want to call it riding that emotional high, the emotions and everything — of course we are, because we’re dealing with something that’s going to be a last.”
Whether that last game comes Sunday or in the Super Bowl, Lewis is clearly relishing it. He will be in the center of a huddle Sunday, his teammates gathered round, and he will bark words to them that likely will be picked up by a television camera and broadcast to the football-loving public. Will the Ravens prevail because he is doing that for one of the final times? Who knows?
“It’s something that’s special,” he said. “To end it, whenever it ends, so be it.”