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OWINGS MILLS — Jamal Lewis was the centerpiece of the Baltimore Ravensâ€™ offense the last time they were in this position. Three seasons ago, Lewisâ€™ authoritative running style defined the AFC North champions as he gained a career-high 2,066 rushing yards for the second-most productive rushing season in NFL history.
Now, Lewis has redefined himself as a complementary, much less flashy cog in a more prolific, balanced attack.
With Lewis rushing for 1,063 yards and nine touchdowns one season removed from a career-low 906 yards and three touchdowns, the Ravens (12-3) are division title winners again and preparing for the playoffs heading into Sundayâ€™s regular-season finale against the Buffalo Bills at M&T Bank Stadium.
Although quarterback Steve McNair is the primary option for the NFL’s 17th-ranked offense, Lewis is playing a critical role.
â€œWeâ€™re just rolling with it and Iâ€™m playing my game, which is physical,â€ Lewis said. â€œTheyâ€™re doing a good job of keeping me fresh and well-rested.
"Iâ€™m doing the right things off the field to take care of my body. I know whatâ€™s at stake. Iâ€™ve been here before, and I know where weâ€™re going.â€
During the 2000 season when Lewis was a rookie, the Ravens leaned heavily on him on their way to a Super Bowl title in the postseason as he rushed for 338 yards and four touchdowns in the playoffs, including 102 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXV.
This season, Baltimore is banking on another heavy reliance on Lewis for the tough yards inside and to make defenses respect the play-action fake that has become a staple of the offense since coach Brian Billick fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel earlier this season and assumed offensive coordinator duties.
â€œHis style of running, now that takes a toll,â€ Billick said. â€œHeâ€™s fought through it brilliantly. Weâ€™re at that time in the season where we need to get him rested because that kind of physical running style bodes well in the playoffs.â€
Lewis has been getting stronger as the season wears on, rushing for seven touchdowns in the past six contests.
Although Lewis has only two 100-yard games this season, he has been consistently grinding out yards and punishing tacklers. The former Pro Bowl runner isnâ€™t nearly as explosive as he was in 2003 or as prone to breakaway runs, but has been getting the job done with a hard-nosed approach.
Lewis ran over Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Joey Porter in the first quarter of a 31-7 victory last Sunday at Heinz Field, trucking him badly enough that Porter responded by throwing a headlock on Lewis to draw a personal foul.
Against Pittsburgh, Lewis finished with 77 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries. He gained 109 yards on 22 carries with a season-long run of 52 yards against the Cleveland Browns. And, so far in December, Lewis has rushed for 267 yards and three touchdowns.
â€œIâ€™m not going to call it a hot streak,â€ Lewis said. â€œItâ€™s just me doing my job and whatâ€™s asked of me and coach putting me in position to do a lot of things. Steve McNair and the offensive line have set me up to do a lot of things in the red-zone area.â€
Lewis’ recent resurgence will likely make the organization’s decision more difficult on whether to retain him after this season.
Lewis, who earned $6 million in total compensation this season under what essentially acts as a one-year contract, is due a $5 million roster bonus before free agency begins in March and a $5 million base salary next season. General manager Ozzie Newsome made it clear when he re-signed the 2000 first-round draft pick that the team will review its relationship with Lewis following this season.
Right now, Lewis’ attention is on the playoffs, not his contract. He appears to be much more content with the franchise than he was a year ago when he complained often about a reduced workload and wondered aloud about his impending future.
"All I’m thinking about is the next game," Lewis said. "Everything else takes care of itself when that time comes."
As Lewisâ€™ season has progressed one year after undergoing ankle surgery and serving a four-month federal prison sentence for a cocaine conspiracy plea bargain, so has his rapport with blocking fullback Ovie Mughelli.
â€œKnowing what I do, knowing what he does, itâ€™s all about us going to the same place at the same time and being on the same page,â€ Lewis said.
Mughelliâ€™s role has increased markedly since Fasselâ€™s departure, and so has the 6-1, 255-pounderâ€™s understanding of how to work in tandem with Lewis as his lead blocker and personal bodyguard on the field.
â€œFrom last year to this year, itâ€™s gone light years ahead in terms of knowing how to work together,â€ Mughelli said. â€œLast year was my first year working with Jamal, and it was very difficult to get a bead on him, how he reacts, how he reads things.
â€œNow, I understand. I could close my eyes and figure out what heâ€™s going to do. I think Jamal is the same back he was in 2003. Even if his yards and numbers arenâ€™t there, whenever we need him, heâ€™s there.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland