Lee Evans waited eight years for this moment to arrive, a time that tried his patience and has made him appreciate even more where he stands today.
Although Evans was a first-round draft pick for the Buffalo Bills who had his share of touchdowns and clutch catches, the veteran wide receiver never got a taste for the playoffs.
Not until now, not until joining the Baltimore Ravens via an August trade for a fourth-round draft pick.
So, even going through the routine of preparing for an AFC divisional playoff game Jan. 15 against an undetermined opponent feels special to Evans because he's never been in this position before.
"To be able to be on this journey with these men who have been there and done it before, really there is only one thing left to conquer," Evans said Wednesday in the Ravens' locker room. "I can't even put it into words. It's a special experience for me.
"It's kind of like being a rookie all over again going into the playoffs because it's somewhere I've never been, but I'm looking forward to it and I've been preparing for it since I came into the league. So, I'm excited."
In the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year and the lone NFL team to win a playoff game each of the past three seasons, the Ravens (12-4) have grown accustomed to this experience.
They've got a core group of young players headlined by quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice who have never missed a single postseason since arriving in the NFL.
For older players like Evans who haven't gotten to this point previously, this is something they would love to get used to.
And Evans has related that to the rookies and other young players.
"Absolutely, and I think that message has been portrayed," Evans said. "A lot of the older guys who have been here, that have gone through it before, they're imparting that upon people. For me, I understand how hard it is to get here and how hard we've had to work to get to this point. So this is one of those moments you've got to cherish but also take advantage of because they don't come very often."
A year ago, defensive end Cory Redding was in Evans' shoes as a veteran player who hadn't made it to the playoffs before during his stints with the Detroit Lions and the Seattle Seahawks.
Now, they're imparting that to their teammates.
"Those guys have a tendency of letting the rest of the guys know, especially the young guys, how important it really is," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Anquan Boldin got up and talked to the offense about that, and he referenced [Evans and running back Ricky Williams] specifically. When you've been in the league for seven, eight, nine, 10 years and you haven't been to the playoffs, sometimes the young guys take it for granted. The veterans can let them know how special it really is."
Williams made it to the playoffs before when he played for the Miami Dolphins, but has never made it to a Super Bowl.
Although he eclipsed the 10,000-yard rushing barrier Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, Williams has been through hard times and regards this as one of his last chances to win it all.
"I've had a long career and a successful career, but a Super Bowl is something that's not on my resume," Williams said. "So, it would be nice to go deep and showcase, as a team, our abilities and the way we play football. I think lot of people know about the Ravens, but I don't think they understand what it means to play like a Raven. I'm not going to have many more chances, no matter what I do. I just want to make the most of it and enjoy it."
In a reserve role after starting in Buffalo, Evans has caught only four passes for 74 yards and has been shut out each of the past three games.
Rather than worry about his dwindling statistics, Evans is intent on contributing however he can as the Ravens chase the Vince Lombardi trophy given to the Super Bowl winner.
Even though he's a playoff novice, Evans has already surmised correctly that this is the time to raise his level of play.
"Everything has to be precise," Evans said. "If you have a loose end somewhere, it's going to show. The best team is going to win. The team that executes the best is going to win, and guys are going to be playing hard, and it's going to be the highest level of football that I've ever been a part of. So, it's exciting.
"That's why opportunities like this, you've really got to take advantage of. You've really got to try to live in the moment of it and understand what it took to get here but how hard it's going to be going forward. It's something I haven't experienced, but something I know down in my gut what it takes. That's football at the highest level."
Ravens notebook: R. Lewis defends his play
OWINGS MILLS – Ray Lewis is accustomed to defending sweeps, fullback dives and swing passes.
It's a rare occasion when the Baltimore Ravens' Pro Bowl middle linebacker has had to defend himself.
With Lewis' range in pass coverage noticeably shorter than during his heyday, the question has been raised whether the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year should be replaced on third downs.
Since returning from a right turf toe injury that sidelined him for four games, Lewis has appeared vulnerable in pass coverage. The 36-year-old been fairly effective and productive against the run on plays between the tackles, but hasn't hit quite as hard as usual.
In Lewis' opinion, though, there's nothing wrong.
"If you ask my peers, why wouldn't I be?" Lewis said when asked if he's happy with how he's playing. "It's hard not to be because the game is simple. You are always going to make a bad play, you are always going to make a good play. It's about the consistency or how consistent you coach approach every week. You go through a resume of all of the great ones, you can always go back to when they had their downs, when they had their ups, but they were able to overcome that and keep going."
In his 16th season, Lewis was named to his 13th Pro Bowl.
He still leads the Ravens with 95 tackles and recorded two sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception.
While it might not be up to Lewis' previous gold standard, he's still the unquestioned leader of the defense and their top option at middle linebacker.
Deflecting the criticism, Lewis said he takes it as a compliment.
"If you have watched me long enough, it's actually a credit to me and my hard work," Lewis said. "To still be around doing what I'm doing, 16 years I've been in this business. Do you know how many men I've seen come walk in and out of this door? Think about all the people that have had that one dream to be here and never made it. For God to carry me through 16 years and still playing at the level I'm playing at, man speaks what man speaks, but Go controls a whole ‘nother though process."
Lewis denied having discussions with coach John Harbaugh or other staffers about not playing every down, barring an injury.
"They will try to tell you the smart thing to do, and you kind of do the opposite," Lewis said. "Like when I separated my shoulder, I knew I had done something bad to it, but the game was more important at that time. I jumped down onto the field in Cleveland and started doing pushups. I said I felt good enough to go back in until I got hit again and I was like, ‘OK, I think I need to come sit down.'"
Lewis was beaten to the outside by speedy Bengals running back Bernard Scott, who ran through an arm tackle attempt by free safety Ed Reed on a 25-yard touchdown run.
Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs has heard the criticism of Lewis and Reed, who's having trouble tackling due to a nerve impingement in his neck and a shoulder injury.
And Suggs said he wouldn't want to play on a defense without them.
"Him or Ed Reed's not allowed to come off that field," Suggs said. "Ray wanted to play when he got hurt, but they advised him to sit down, to let it fully heal. He was still our leader, still making the adjustments. He just wasn't playing. It was hold the levees until the general came back."
And Lewis said he wouldn't trade his experiences and wisdom for the vigor and speed of his younger days.
"I tell people all the time I would never want to go back to being a young Ray Lewis," said Lewis, who was last named NFL Defensive Player of the Year eight years ago. "The young Ray Lewis, he was good, but he was out of control. The way I am now is a much wiser person. Every man chases wisdom, if you are truly a man chasing something.
"Where I'm at now in my career, I appreciate the game. I appreciate the mistakes. I appreciate the ups and the downs because there is always a learning curve. There's always many plays that I may have gotten beat on two weeks ago, last week that I have been beat 10 years ago on the same play. It's just that's the irony of the game."
As for whispers about retirement, Lewis said that's not what he's consumed with. Not with the Ravens back in the playoffs and preparing for an AFC divisional playoff game Jan. 15 at M&T Bank Stadium.
"I have a true obligation to myself to play the game with nothing else on my mind," he said. "The second thing I have an obligation to is my teammates to give it everything I got."
Pro Bowl offensive guard Marshal Yanda needed this week to heal up after gutting it out to play through bruised ribs and loose cartilage against the Bengals.
"It will be huge," Yanda said. "Get that extra week of recovery, and that's just money to heal and be ready to play whoever we play next Sunday."
Yanda was listed as doubtful heading into last Sunday, but ultimately decided to play through the pain and difficulty breathing
"It was tough, but once I got the blood flowing, I felt pretty decent out there," Yanda said. "I felt like I could still play at a pretty high level and that was the most important thing. It was all good until that last long run in the fourth quarter when I landed on my ribs again. That was the worst one, but the best part was that happened so late in the game that I could play pretty decent until that play."
Yanda didn't practice Wednesday and is unlikely to practice today.
"You want to try and play through the pain and stuff, but just that I'm a quick healer and to be able to get back out there and feel good enough to play and play at a high level," Yanda said. "That was the most important thing. If I couldn't play at a high level, I wasn't going to play obviously. Don't want to hurt the team in any way. It was a good feeling to get that win and be a part of it."
Inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith and safety Tom Zbikowski haven't been cleared for contact yet following concussions.
They did take part in a light indoors practice Wednesday.
"Good progress reports," Harbaugh said. "They haven't been cleared yet through testing, but they're all making good progress.
Several players weren't at practice Wednesday during the portion open to reporters.
That includes Lewis (right turf toe), inside linebacker Jameel McClain (sprained medial collateral ligament), offensive guard Yanda (bruised ribs), offensive guard Ben Grubbs (right toe) and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (elbow laceration).
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin returned to practice following his recent knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus.
He looked like he's ready to play, displaying sound mobility and ability to cut in pass patterns.
Strong safety Bernard Pollard (wrist) practiced.
Special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo (sprained quadriceps) didn't practice.
Ayanbadejo indicated that doctors haven't ruled him out for the divisional playoff game
"The doctors don't know," he said. "Right now, the plan is to play. I'm just trying to get range of motion back."
MARVIN LEWIS WAS WRONG:
Following Baltimore Ravens' 24-16 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis incorrectly stated that the Ravens are among the most penalized teams in football.
"The Ravens are a team that has committed more defensive penalties than anyone in the NFL, and I don't think they got called for one today," Lewis said Sunday. "The film will be interesting to look at. Some of the plays we were called for didn't look like penalties."
However, the Ravens ranked fourth in the NFL for fewest penalty yards assessed (742), were tied for fifth by committing the fifth-fewest penalties (101) and had the ninth-fewest penalties enforced (92).
RICE HONORED: Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week.
He was also named the FedEx Ground NFL Player of the Week after rushing for 191 yards and two touchdowns against the Bengals.
"This has been the healthier I've been, this is the best I've ever felt," said Rice, who rushed for a career-high 1,364 yards and scored a franchise-record 15 touchdowns. "Coach Harbaugh would tell you himself that this year I got after the weight room a little bit harder coming into the season, and I'm having the ability to get stronger during the season.
"Give our strength and conditioning coaches credit that I've been able to maintain my strength throughout the season. I'm not feeling beat up or battered. If I come out of the game sore, I'm supposed to come out of the game sore."
10,000: Backup running back Ricky Williams eclipsed the 10,000 rushing yard milestone Sunday against the Bengals.
On his 10-yard run in the second quarter, Williams joined 25 other running backs who have reached the mark in NFL history.
"It just means that I've been around a long time," Williams said with a laugh. "If you're around long enough and you get to touch the ball enough, you're going to have yards. That's a talent in and of itself to be able to last this long.
"I'm taking good care of my body and played well enough that someone wanted me. It just speaks for my endurance and my ability to keep on going."
Williams gained 444 yards and scored two touchdowns this season as the primary backup to Rice.
And Rice has credited Williams for aiding his development.
"Me and him have been quite the 1-2 combo," Rice said. "I may get the glory, but Ricky really softens the defense up for me. Next thing you know, I get the big play. People will tell you that he's a brutal runner."
After the game in the locker room, Rice pointed it out to Harbaugh that Williams had joined an elite fraternity.
"So, Ricky got called up into the middle of the circle there," Harbaugh said. "He was kind of in the back. He's a quiet guy. The team started chanting, ‘Ricky, Ricky, Ricky.' It was really a neat moment. It was just a team moment, and we caught each other's eye there for a minute. It's hard to explain how valuable those things are."
CONFIDENT IN CUNDIFF:
The Ravens felt confident enough in kicker Billy Cundiff that they cut kicker Shayne Graham on Tuesday.
Cundiff is regarded as healthy now after missing a game with a left calf injury. He connected on a 42-yard field goal on his lone attempt against the Bengals.
"It was big to see him be able to do that," Harbaugh said. "The way he pounded the ball through, we all felt good about that. So, he looks like he's 100 percent."
Cundiff said he appreciated how Graham filled in for him, making two field goals against the Cleveland Browns.
"I was very happy that Shayne was able to come in and help the team and make some kicks," Cundiff said. "He was a true professional. He made it easier for me to rehab and get ready for when I was able to get on the field."
Now, Cundiff said he's feeling much better.
"It sucked not knowing if it would hold up, that's not the best feeling," he said. "Not being able to be aggressive, not being able to know if it's going to hold up, not having the power really to pull when I plant, that affects being aggressive. For me to be able to actually get through a game and be able to do the things that I'm supposed to do, I've got to have the strength first and foremost.
"Definitely on kickoffs, that was the biggest thing, I couldn't transition my weight and rip through with my hips. That was impossible. Field goals, a little less so. It was more of a mental thing than a physical thing. I got through it and wasn't able to be as aggressive as I wanted to. It's a little bit different when you're playing at 75 percent."
Wide receiver Lee Evans dropped a long pass that glanced off his hands against the Bengals.
"I just dropped it," he said. "I should've had that one."
Rams, Colts ask to interview DeCosta
OWINGS MILLS -- The St. Louis Ram snd the Indianapolis Colts have requested permission to interview Baltimore Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta.
However, the Times has learned that no interview has been scheduled at this time and there remains a strong possibility that DeCosta will remain with the AFC North organization.
DeCosta is a highly-regarded personnel executive who has strong family ties to Maryland. He's also the Ravens' general manager in waiting contractually and has been tabbed as the next general manager in Baltimore should general manager Ozzie Newsome decide to retire.
The Chicago Bears and the Oakland Raiders are among the other teams interested in DeCosta.
At this point, though, it doesn't appear that he's leaving the Ravens.
Terrell Suggs named AFC Defensive Player of the Month
OWINGS MILLS -- Baltimore Ravens Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Month.
Suggs finished the season with a career-high 14 sacks, breaking his own franchise record with seven forced fumbles.
Suggs recorded five sacks and forced four fumbles during the Ravens' final four games of the regular season.
Suggs had three sacks against the Indianapolis Colts, forcing Dan Orlovsky three fumbles.
Suggs forced a pivotal fumble against the Cincinnati Bengals that led to Ray Rice's 51-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
Suggs also sacked quarterback Andy Dalton late in the game as Baltimore finalized a 24-16 victory.
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