Ravens' J. Lewis, Chiefs' Holmes set to square off

OWINGS MILLS - An elite duel where the weapons of choice are stiff-arms, sweeps and swiftness will unfold in today's football game. Besides a daunting challenge for defenders attempting to corral the Baltimore Ravens' bulldozing NFL rushing leader Jamal Lewis and the Kansas City Chiefs' elusive All-Pro tailback Priest Holmes, there's an ironic twist to this encounter at M&T Bank Stadium.

Holmes' first return appearance in Baltimore is nearly a perfect illustration of how the future impact of personnel decisions are nearly impossible to predict.  His nouveau-riche status is well beyond what was anticipated for the former Ravens' starter when he signed with the undefeated Chiefs two years ago. That move followed the Ravens (2-1) drafting Lewis in the first round and installing him as a starter ahead of Holmes in a season capped by a Super Bowl title.  The Chiefs' multi-dimensional star is the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year after leading the NFL last season with 2,287 yards from scrimmage. 

In two seasons in Kansas City, he has compiled nearly 3,200 yards with 29 touchdowns. Holmes ranks fourth in the NFL with 296 rushing yards and first in rushing touchdowns with seven. A sore hip flexor won't keep him from starting today. "Priest Holmes is in every household now," defensive end Adalius Thomas said. "He's a big guy. When he was here, he was just Priest Holmes." Now, Lewis, the former understudy who rushed for 1,364 yards as a rookie with Holmes watching from the sidelines, takes on his old mentor. Holmes was allowed to leave for reasons that included the economic reality of the salary cap, his injury history, Lewis' rapid progression and the Ravens wanting a bruising runner suited to the black-and-blue AFC Central.  

Since Holmes' departure, Lewis has been through a serious knee injury, a comeback, eclipsed Holmes as the club's all-time leading rusher and established a new NFL mark for most rushing yards in a single game with 295 against the Cleveland Browns.  Meanwhile, Holmes has thrived in an offense Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil used with Marshall Faulk as its centerpiece with the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams. "He didn't go beyond my expectations," Lewis said of Holmes' post-Baltimore accomplishments. "I knew what type of running back he was when I was here. I really see him as my mentor. He taught me a lot. "He's a great back. He went out and showed that to the rest of the world. I'm probably a little bit better fit for what they wanted here." 

Ravens coach Brian Billick has spent a lot of time this week repeatedly explaining the thinking behind letting Holmes leave town. "We would have loved to have had Priest," Billick said. "Those who think we just arbitrarily jettisoned Priest, when people make that comment they are showing their lack of knowledge of the league.  "The amount of money it would have taken to keep Priest, the money he was worth, that was due him, would not have been prudent to extend yourself in the cap for what amounts to a backup running back. Even if we had chosen to do that, Priest would have gone to a place where he had a viable place to start." 

Billick also alluded to Holmes' injuries on Monday. He was held to nine games in 1999 with a knee problem. "Not to diminish what Priest does, but there had been a bit of an injury history," Billick said. "We felt that we needed a big physical back in a big, physical conference of backs." Yet, in a twist of the bottom line of NFL business vs. personal sentiment, both parties say there's no hard feelings; just mutual respect and affection for a feel-good plot line surrounding the game. "Emotionally, I won't really get caught up in that," Holmes said. "I think when Billick came in, he knew what he wanted. He let everybody know that it was going to be his way or the highway. So, everyone who wanted to be a part of the team had to put down their ego to be a part of it and go with Billick. "He did a great job. As far as my exit out of there, it was time for me to go. It was just a matter of which team I would be going to." 

When Lewis shredded his knee in training camp the summer after the Super Bowl, Holmes was in Kansas City and the Ravens had to scramble to sign journeyman Terry Allen as their starter. The Ravens haven't spent this week second-guessing that old predicament. They've been too busy game-planning for Holmes, All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez and a heralded offensive line led by perennial Pro Bowl selections in left tackle Willie Roaf and right guard Will Shields.  

Kansas City leads the NFL in scoring with 36 points per contest and have recorded a touchdown in every trip to the red zone. The Chiefs smashed the Steelers, 41-20, one week after Pittsburgh handled Baltimore, 34-15. While Lewis attempts to keep Holmes off the field, rookie quarterback Kyle Boller will attempt to keep the Chiefs halfway honest against the Ravens' 32nd-ranked passing offense. Holmes is aware of what he's in store for today: linebacker Ray Lewis becoming his second shadow. "It is one thing to have to play in the backyard against your older brothers and sisters for a number of years and facing them later," Holmes said. "You have an idea of what Ray brings to the table." 

Holmes' former teammates used to tease him about his frugal nature, joking that he drove the worst car on the team, a beat-up Mustang that had duct tape on the bumper. "Everybody in Baltimore respects him," Lewis said. "There are no bad feelings, no hard feelings toward him. It will be good to have him home." The Ravens want to welcome the genial Holmes with some fierce tackles to avoid allowing consecutive 100-yard rushers one week removed from a win over the San Diego Chargers and running back LaDainian Tomlinson. "Priest always keeps a smile on his face regardless of the situation, but, come Sunday, I'm not going to be looking for any smiles," Ray Lewis said. "We have house rules, period."

Aaron Wilson writes for The Carroll County Times

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