GREAT LINEBACKER BATTLE

Sunday's playoff game between the Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens is expected to be a defensive battle, and one of the biggest reasons is the presence of two of the best middle linebackers in the NFL.<P>And while their style of play is similar, Ray Lewis and Zach Thomas hardly could be more different in their demeanor.

Lewis has emerged as one of the best defensive players in the NFL, and he's not afraid to tell anyone how good he is. In fact, he has often stated that his mission is to be recognized as the greatest middle linebacker ever once he leaves the game.

Thomas, for his part, always has preferred to let his playing do his talking.

Offensive tackle Harry Swayne, who played for Baltimore last season and is in his first year with the Dolphins, was asked about similarities between the two.

"They have the same kind of fire when they play; you just hear more about Ray Lewis' because he talks about it a lot more," Swayne said. "That's how he gets himself going. Zach is a little more subdued, but the same kind of fire, passion and energy for the game for both of them, even though the packages are a little different."

Lewis and Thomas clearly are the central figures in their team's defense, and both systems are geared toward freeing up the middle linebacker to make plays.

And, boy, do Lewis and Thomas make a lot of plays.

A perfect illustration of how highly regarded Thomas is by his opponents came this week courtesy of Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe.

The always-colorful Sharpe was offended a few weeks back when Steelers running back Jerome Bettis dared to talk about Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes as being comparable to Lewis.

Sharpe fired back with a movie analogy, saying that Lewis was "Titanic" while Spikes was "Dude Where's My Car?"

When asked what movie would describe Thomas, Sharpe came up with "Gladiator."

Now, that's a compliment.


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