Ray versus Tom.
Tom versus Ray.
Oh, yeah, and the Ravens and Patriots along for the ride. Ray Lewis’ last ride, one Tom Brady hopes to cut short today 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 lose again, Lewis’ 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 past dozen seasons.
That Lewis and Brady respect and admire each other adds some flattery to 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 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 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. … 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 chance than Lewis, who raises his teammates to a fevered pitch before games.
But what the Ravens need today is discipline to go with the fervor. Otherwise, Brady will pick them apart.
Yet, 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, defensive 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, 21/2 in playoffs) is the main threat, and linebacker Terrell Suggs has been coming on since returning from an Achilles tendon injury. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is a handful, as good as his Patriots counterpart Vince Wilfork.
No matter who finds his way into the spotlight, though, Lewis and Brady won’t be shoved aside.
Lewis thinks it is an honor to face Peyton 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.
“Playing against Brady and just watching him sometimes, you’re always in awe on watching on how good he really is.”