BALTIMORE — There is a patch of gray in Ed Reed’s hair, a reminder whenever he looks in the mirror that he’s 33 and not 23, that, as he puts it, “Father Time is marching on.” Ray Lewis keeps his hair so short it is impossible to detect any change in hair color, but there is no doubting the receding hairline, regardless of how expensive his suit may be.
The pair has been the heart and soul of the Baltimore Ravens defense for so long it feels as if they were playing in Baltimore with Johnny Unitas and John Mackey in Memorial Stadium. Lewis is in his 16th season and Reed is in his 10th. Each knows he isn’t the player he was in the past. Each knows that the stars of this Ravens defense are Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs.
But, as they proved again Sunday in the Ravens’ tense, grinding 20-13 AFC semifinal victory over the Houston Texans, they both have some game left.
“They’ve both taken some criticism this season and I’m glad to see them both come out when it really mattered and play so well,” Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said in the victorious locker room. “In a very real sense this was vindication for them.”
Vindication for Reed came in the form of a nearly game-clinching interception on the Ravens 4-yard line with 1 minute 51 seconds to play after he failed to corral wayward passes that appeared to be there for the taking. Lewis had eight tackles and several turn-back-the-clock moments, most notably when he found himself in the open field with Houston’s superb young running back, Arian Foster, midway through the fourth quarter.
The Texans were down only 17-13 at that stage, at midfield with a first down. Most in a record M&T Stadium crowd of 71,547 were growing nervous as the cold January sun began to fade rapidly. Houston quarterback T.J. Yates found Foster in the left flat with only Lewis standing between him and a long gain.
“Watching him all day long was amazing,” Lewis said later. “He has so many cuts and moves there are times when you almost catch yourself just watching him.”
Lewis didn’t watch this time. He never gave Foster a chance to cut or dart or slash, wrapping him up and bringing him down for a loss of seven yards. Two plays later, facing third and 12, Yates tried to find Kevin Walter deep down the middle and cornerback Lardarius Webb made his second interception of the day.
If there is a difference between Lewis and Reed — besides the fact Lewis is 36 and Reed is 33 — it is that Reed will at least acknowledge he’s getting older. Lewis darts and dodges like Foster when the subject comes up.
Reed is still fiercely proud of who he is and clearly has been stung by some of the criticism he’s heard this season. He talked about those who have been on him for not tackling well and about his few interceptions — three all season, two in the opener — and insisted, even while bringing it up, that he didn’t listen to his critics.
“I had a better tackling game today than the last two or three,” he said. “This is the playoffs. You do whatever you have to do to win. I know people have talked about me not getting as many picks, but some of that has been because they don’t throw it my way that much.”
He stopped and smiled. “Just before I made the interception I shook [Webb’s] hand and asked him for his hands. Afterward he said he wanted them back. I’m getting older. I understand that. I know Father Time is out there and someday someone else is going to be playing safety here in Baltimore.”
Lewis knows the clock is ticking for him, too, but he chooses not to get caught up in worrying about when the end will come. “I never have those moments,” he said when asked if he thinks about it. He laughed. “I got kids. They challenge me in everything — sprints, in the weight room.
“Hey, when it’s over, it’s over. I think people appreciate when great warriors fight to the end. They don’t think about the guys who play two or three years. I’m proud to have played 16 years. I credit a lot of people: My mom, God, but I also credit my work ethic. I can’t stop working.
“Whenever is whenever, whenever that is.”
Lewis and Reed have earned the right to feel that way. The Ravens are in the AFC championship game Sunday and believe they can win at Gillette Stadium regardless of how gaudy Tom Brady’s numbers were against Denver on Saturday night.
Since Harbaugh came to Baltimore, the Ravens have never failed to reach the conference semifinals. They will be in their second championship game since Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco arrived together in 2008. One of the reasons for their success is that Harbaugh and his coaches have been able to transition a great defense from one dominated by Lewis and Reed to one led by Ngata and Suggs on the field while Lewis and Reed remain vocal leaders off the field.
There was little that was pretty about the Ravens victory on Sunday — they are rarely a pretty team. The last time they made something look easy was in Super Bowl XXXV back in 2001, when they beat the Giants, 34-7.
They haven’t been back since. Now, they’re on the doorstep again. Lewis and Reed can clearly hear the footsteps of Father Time. But, as they both showed on Sunday, he hasn’t caught up to them just yet.
For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.
com. For his previous columns for The Post, go to washingtonpost.com/