It's hard to find a picture of Ray Lewis that doesn't either motivate you or scare the living hell out of you. Personally, I want Lewis to be my personal trainer, my life coach, my mentor. He could even pretend to be my dad and co-sign a lease for all I care, just as long as I had Lewis by my side. That's why Lewis is the quintessential reason that the Ravens have gone to the playoffs nine times this decade. The final answer as to why Joe Flacco is the first quarterback in NFL history to reach the playoffs in each of his first five seasons.
Though controversy seemed to mar what kind of a person Lewis was off of the field early in his career (how low does it get when Trent Dilfer goes to Disneyland over the clear leader of a Super Bowl champion?) ultimately people couldn't help but respect the play of the best linebacker of the last 20 years. Even if his play waned in recent seasons, which has led him to retiring after the Ravens' playoff run is over, Lewis should make even the most logical mind think about the validity of "intangible." The importance of "emotion."
At this point, Terrell Suggs is a better player than Lewis. Still, the Ravens were 5-1 with Lewis, and 5-5 without him. I won't pretend like there weren't other factors at work, the injury to Lardarius Webb especially, but I go back to where I started: Is there a better motivator and more intimidating player in the NFL than Lewis?
Baltimore is certainly better with him and than without him.
If he can suit up on Sunday against the Colts, it might be the last time that the Ravens ever do suit up with him. But then again, maybe he's got a few more speeches left to give.
Why the Ravens Win the Super Bowl
Experience aka 'Getting Older'
The Ravens versus the Colts will be a true test of youth versus experience. Even if it's 27-year-old Joe Flacco. Like I said, he has gone to the playoffs in every season of his career, but he has also won at least one playoff game in every season of his career. Flacco has almost as many playoff games (9) as Andrew Luck has career regular season starts. How he has performed in those games is another story.
Flacco is a career 54.3% passer in the playoffs with 8 TD, 8 INT and 6.20 yards per attempt. He has thrown seven interceptions in the four games in which Baltimore has been eliminated. Still, many quarterbacks struggle in the early going of their playoff careers. Peyton Manning didn't win a single playoff game until his sixth season. (Blame the defense? He had 1 TD and 2 INT in his first three playoff games.) Is this the year that Flacco breaks out, now that Torrey Smith can play like a bonafide star at times?
The Most Special Teams
The Ravens are okay on offense. (If it means anything, they have rushed for 430 yards over the last two games under new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell.) They are below-average on defense. So how does a team set up with those offensive and defensive units win the AFC North? Ironically, the same way that their 2011 season ended: Special teams!
According to Football Outsiders, Baltimore has the best special teams unit in the NFL and it's not even close. In fact, they have the seventh-best special teams unit by DVOA since 1991. It makes sense.
Jacoby Jones has a punt return touchdown and two kickoff returns for touchdowns. Justin Tucker is 30-for-33 and 4-for-4 from 50+ yards on field goal tries. They are excellent in kick coverage and pretty good in punting and punt coverage.
The Ravens find themselves matched up against a pretty bad playoff team in the first round, so if the Colts and Ravens play it close for three quarters, a big play on special teams could make the difference at the end.
Chuckstrong, Meet Ray Lewi-Sendoff
Is there any chance that a Ray Lewis retirement tour could end in New Orleans? It worked for Jerome Bettis, right? The Ravens are a longshot to win the Super Bowl this season, but they still have the benefit of at least one home game, they've beaten the Patriots in the playoffs in New England as recently as 2009, and they know that this is Lewis' last chance to make another Super Bowl.
It just seems wrong that the league's best defensive player of the era would only make it to the final game once in his career. Then again, football is about more than just how things "seem" or "feel." It's going to take a lot more than the knowledge that your team leader isn't going to ever play football again to get you to the Super Bowl.
But could it help by a single iota? Maybe, but logically and rationally, I must say... no.
Why the Ravens Won't Win the Super Bowl
Does it hurt when I put you on the Ravens?
It must, because this injury list is looooong and it's not just Lewis.
The Ravens placed 12 players on IR this season, not including Lewis who was re-activated. They have eleven players listed as questionable for Sunday. Another eight listed as probable. Many of them play key roles. Baltimore might have experience to their advantage, but it won't mean a thing if that "experience" just leads to creaky knees and hip replacements.
Only two players on the Ravens defense have made 16 starts this season: Reed and Cary Williams.
I believe that Baltimore at full strength is one of the best teams in the league. Heck, it was only a year ago that they nearly beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship game. But they aren't at full strength, and they won't be at any point in the postseason. That's a problem.
What if Joe Flacco just doesn't get better?
Truth be told, I'm just not much of a Flacco fan. I'll ask you this, is Flacco any better today than he was in 2009?
2009: 63.1%, 3,613 yards, 21 TD, 12 INT, 7.2 Y/A, 88.9 rating, 55.03 QBR
2012: 59.7%, 3,817 yards, 22 TD, 10 INT, 7.2 Y/A, 87.7 rating, 46.82 QBR
Better question: Is Flacco worse than he was four years ago? Aren't quarterbacks supposed to get better? At least, ideally? In '09, the Ravens receivers were Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton, and Kelley Washington. Not Torrey Smith and Boldin. The players around him are better, why isn't Flacco?
Obviously Baltimore doesn't cut ties with Flacco. Even an average quarterback is hard to find in the NFL. But am I putting money on him to be the reason a team wins a Super Bowl? No.
Baltimore has lost four of their last five games: Steelers, @ Redskins, Broncos, @ Bengals. Win over the Giants. Now, that is a difficult schedule but do you know what else is a difficult schedule? The playoffs. If they lost by 17 points to Denver at home, why would I expect them to beat Denver in Denver?
They beat the Patriots way back in Week 3 and there was a wee bit of controversy then. They lost to the Texans by 30 points. The playoff teams they have beaten this year? Patriots, and the Bengals back in Week 1. Honestly, there is very little about the Ravens season to look back on and like as far as wins and losses. They haven't forced a turnover in four of their last six games and they are going to need to force turnovers to pull playoff upsets.
Maybe the one missing link in that equation is returning to the field on Sunday. Maybe Lewis really can make that big of a difference. Maybe there's some magic left for one final image of Lewis doing the unthinkable. It's not very likely, but the possibility exists. If the possibility didn't exist, Lewis would stare possibility in the eye and tell it to exist. And then it would be so.