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Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is older but wiser -- and still a mauler

NFL

Baltimore star squares off against quarterback Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday.

January 15, 2010|By Kevin Van Valkenburg

It's difficult, at this point in Ray Lewis' career, to separate the man from the mystique.

Think about that this week when he squares off against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. And ask whether desire and preparation can beat back time.

Manning, the 2009 NFL most valuable player, is at the height of his powers. He's perhaps the best offensive player of this generation, and on every play he'll look across the line of scrimmage at Lewis, perhaps the best defensive player of this generation. They'll match wits for four quarters, with the winner living on to fight another week and the loser cleaning out his locker.

It might be the last time they spar when the stakes are so high. In the 2006 season, the only other time the Ravens and Colts met in the playoffs, Lewis and the Ravens' defense kept Manning out of the end zone, but the Colts still managed to escape with a 15-6 victory, and went on to win the Super Bowl.

"This journey has been up and down, but we are on a great journey right now," Lewis said. "We know that is probably the best quarterback of the last 10 or 20 years, bottom line."

"It's always a great challenge playing against No. 52," Manning said.

But Lewis, unlike Manning, is no longer at the height of his powers. Any objective observer -- layman or expert -- can see that age has slowed Lewis' considerable gifts. Although he led the AFC in tackles this season with 134, he is not the sideline-to-sideline tornado of focused fury that he was during the peak of his career.

But after watching the Ravens' 33-14 throttling of the New England Patriots on Sunday -- a game in which Lewis had 13 tackles, including a sack so vicious it looked as if Tom Brady had been trampled under the hooves of a thundering bull -- you realize it might not matter that he is not as swift or as quick as he once was.

"I've never been around a better defensive player," Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said. "But more than that, what a great leader, what a great guy, what a great mentor to our younger guys. I think he plays really hard and he never takes a play off. He's on the field every single play. He's not 26 anymore, but he has a bank of knowledge about the game. When a guy has that kind of a foundation football-wise, his study means that much more. He watches tape and he sees a lot more than that 26-year-old would see."

What's clear is that Lewis, 34, still believes he is the same player, the one who led the Ravens to a Super Bowl win in the 2000 season, and is convinced he can do it a decade later.

After all these years, he remains the public face of the Ravens' franchise, the one player remaining who connects the glories of the past with the expectations of the present. Every week, a different opposing fan base casts him as the villain.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

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