On Sunday, the Ravens will play what could be their final home game of the season.
Multiple scenarios are in play but it remains simple – beat either the Giants or the Bengals over the final two weeks and they’re AFC North champions. That would guarantee them an additional home game in the postseason.
As current owners of a three-game losing streak, an injured defense, and a sputtering offense, the Ravens know that nothing is guaranteed. If they clinch the AFC North, they’ll be awarded just the one guaranteed additional home game of the season as they are now the lowest divisional seed in the AFC, trailing the other three by at least one game.
(The only way they could get another home game after the Wild Card round, assuming they do win the division, would be if the other wild card team – that is, the one they DON’T play that week – makes it to the AFC Championship game, along with the Ravens.)
So, simply put for Ray Lewis – one additional home game after Sunday, in all likelihood…but no guarantees.
Since tearing his triceps during a Week 6 win over the Dallas Cowboys Lewis has – to put it mildly – been going through some extreme measures to rehab the injury. Lewis’ work ethic and dedication will never be questioned but attempting to come back so quickly from a devastating injury shows desperation.
When head coach John Harbaugh informed the media of Lewis’ injury during his Monday press conference after the game, he said Lewis was “done for the season.” It wasn’t until later that Harbaugh said the team would use the “designation to return” space available on injured reserve for Lewis, a man determined to not let his career end on an injured list.
Lewis’ motivation was simple. He was within a wide receiver’s blunder of playing for another Lombardi trophy. Lewis wasn’t going to end his legacy so close to his ultimate goal, but sometime in between the AFC Championship game and the start of the 2012 season, father time caught up to him.
His performance has regressed, and with it, so did the Ravens defense. As linebacker Dannell Ellerbe replaced Lewis, the defense actually played better as a unit. They weren’t surrendering 200-yard rushing games to teams and while it was weird to say, the Ravens defense was actually better without Lewis on the field.
Lewis wasn’t going to close the book watching from the sidelines – hence his major push for a return now. He wasn’t going to allow back-to-back teams rush for over 200 yards and practically embarrass him (despite the team winning both games).
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He’s been practicing, but Lewis is far from being 100 percent. With the Ravens are already guaranteed a position in the playoffs, it’s highly unlikely Harbaugh would push Lewis in his return, even if the coach’s best current option at linebacker is Josh Bynes, a guy who was on the practice squad nine weeks ago.
If Lewis plays this week, I believe it’ll be to run out of the tunnel one more time to do his “squirrel” dance for the home crowd for possibly the last time.
Statistically, the Ravens have the best chance of winning the division, but with the Steelers and Bengals both still alive, nothing can be taken for granted.
For a guy who plays with so much pride, hopefully Lewis realizes when enough is enough. We all remember legends like Brett Favre and Michael Jordan, whose love affair for the game went on too long, and tarnished their legacy. Hopefully Lewis, one of the greatest players to ever put on a helmet, recognizes their mistakes and learns from them.
If the Ravens aren’t fortunate enough to play at home again this season and Lewis retires, it won’t be the last time Ravens fans see him dance out of the tunnel. The franchise will find multiple ways to honor the man who has touched it the most, who has been its face and changed a city.
Ray Lewis deserves a memorial at M&T Bank stadium as big as the scoreboards, and there is no doubt Nelly’s “Hot In Here” will be cued and #52 will run out and make the hair stand up on fans’ arms (would it be weird to have a linebackers coach honored in pre-game introductions?)
That’s just what he does.
But it won’t be the same. Lewis won’t be an active member of the team about to take the field.
So if you go to the game Sunday, and Ray indeed dances onto the field, cherish the moment. You may not get to experience it again.