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It may not be judgment day, reckoning, or any number of the over the top Ray Lewis jargon that has infiltrated ESPN headquarters since his retirement announcement, but Sunday’s AFC Championship game between the Patriots and Ravens will be nothing less than a head-on collision.
This isn’t the inexperienced trigger-shy Houston Texans we’re talking about. This isn’t Manti Te’o's girlfriend we’re talking about. This is real. The Baltimore Ravens are for real.
Whether their literal barking before kickoff is used for a legitimate adrenaline infusion or is just Preacher Ray and the gang posing for the cameras, one thing is for sure: the Ravens’ bite matches their bark.
This will be a game where chinstraps and buckles must be in sync, where yards will cost a pretty penny, and where the winner will be thankful to have that extra week of rest before Super Bowl XLVII.
To steal a line from Ray, this one’s “a man’s game.”
Even before John Harbaugh replaced Brian Billick as head coach, the Baltimore Ravens were respected around the league for playing tough, hardnosed football, especially defensively. Despite some wear and tear, that trend continues today under stalwarts Lewis, safety Ed Reed, outside linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs, and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. These guys not only make the plays, but will hit you hard, snarl at ya, and maybe even inquire about some lunch money.
The recent history between the Pats and Ravens will only heighten the tension of what figures to be an impolite encounter. The Patriots were embarrassed by the Birds in the 2009 AFC Wild Card match-up 33-14, while the Patriots held on to win 23-20 in last year’s classic AFC title game. The Ravens feel they have unfinished business to attend to, and Patriots heroes Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff are no longer with the Ravens or allowed within 300 feet of Ray Lewis.
In a sports culture that sees an increasing amount of reciprocal love between players on opposing teams, it is refreshing to see a game where the two teams have authentic feelings of distaste toward one another.
The experts always say that games are won in the trenches. This game might feature trenches that travel beyond the line of scrimmage and extend over the course of the field.
Before Ray Lewis announced that this would be his final year in the NFL, the Ravens looked like a team limping into the playoffs. They had long said goodbye to lady momentum and had lost four of five. The defense looked old and slow. Joe Flacco still looked young, just not very good. It looked like one win in the postseason was all the Ravens were destined for, at most.
Turns out destiny wasn’t quite ready to see Ray Lewis depart. Inspired by his impending exit, the Ravens have played their best football of the season and are fresh off an upset of the number 1 seeded Denver Broncos and the once again dumbfounded Peyton Manning.
Make no mistake about it; the defense still is older and slower. But the emotional lift provided by Lewis’s last hurrah cannot be undersold. He’s been the face of the franchise for the past decade-plus. The organization loves him. More importantly, his teammates love and respond to him. Ray Lewis wants to go out with a bang, and he and his teammates will do whatever they can to make sure Tom Brady is a victim of that bang.
This head on collision should be fun. For a fan, anyway.