Ray Lewis leads team against his old mentor

OWINGS MILLS - A tattered photograph of Ray Lewis adorns Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis' office alongside the Ohio River. It's more than a keepsake from Marvin Lewis' days as the architect of the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl defense. For the first-year head coach, the fierce image of the Ravens' perennial All-Pro linebacker represents more than a reminder of how football is meant to be played.

It's a glimpse into how far both unrelated men who share the same last name have progressed in the NFL. Today's wintry encounter between Baltimore (7-5) and Cincinnati (7-5) at M&T Bank Stadium will ultimately decide who gains sole possession of first place in the AFC North. And both Ray Lewis and Marvin Lewis' contributions tend to be at the heart of any outcome involving their respective football teams. The protégé takes on the professor in a classic rematch. "My hat goes off to Marvin, don't ever get that wrong," said Ray Lewis, whose Ravens lost in Cincinnati, 34-26, in mid-October, derailed by rookie quarterback Kyle Boller's three turnovers. "Marvin is a great coach. He has done a great job in Cincinnati to turn that program around. After that, it ends there." 

And a host of tangible and intangible indicators point toward Ray Lewis playing his best football since the Ravens' Super Bowl campaign three years ago. That was when Marvin Lewis coordinated a record-setting defense whose centerpiece was and is Ray Lewis. As Ray Lewis implied, their relationship won't likely be tested by the heavy playoff implications of this game. It will, however, be put on hold for the hours it takes to essentially decide the division championship. "It's been tremendous," Marvin Lewis said. "Ray and I grew up together. From the day he walked into that building, it has just been a pleasure. From the first day that I introduced myself at the combine and told him what a great football player I thought he was. "I never knew that I would ever get a chance to coach him or be around him. So, he means so much to me, him and his family, how he worked, what a leader he was for me. That will never change." 

What Ray Lewis doesn't want to change is the dominance the Ravens have demonstrated over the years over a team that has shed its old nickname as "The Bungles." Cincinnati, though, hasn't won a football game in Baltimore since the Ravens' inaugural season in 1996 at Memorial Stadium. They have never won in the Ravens' new downtown stadium. Despite a 6-1 spurt sparked by the win over Baltimore after opening the season 1-4, the Bengals haven't won a road game over a team with a winning record in 39 games. That dates back to 1990, the last year Cincinnati had a winning record. "It is not talking trash," Ray Lewis said. "The Bengals don't play well when they come see the Ravens at home. So, come see us again at home, we are playing [ticked] off now." 

Lewis has played with a passionate anger for the majority of this year since recovering from a shoulder injury that ended his season last year. The former NFL Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP missed the Pro Bowl for the first time in five years. Now, he leads Baltimore with 172 tackles and is the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Month. "Ray is paid to be a great player," cornerback Corey Fuller said of Lewis, who signed a $50 million contract extension prior to last season. "From the guys I've been around, I could compare him to Cris Carter for respect for the game and respect for teammates and themselves. "Cris Carter used to tell us, 'God has blessed us all and created all of us with talent, but he spent a little extra time on Randy Moss.' Well, God spent a little more time with Ray." 

In helping Baltimore to a 3-2 record in November, Lewis was credited with 58 tackles for the NFL's fourth-ranked defense along with two interceptions, five pass deflections, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a piece of a sack. "Ray's a tremendous player and it goes without saying that he's a great inspiration to the guys," Baltimore defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "What's so important to Ray all the time is making sure it's a team thing because he knows he plays better when everyone is playing well around him. "Ray's got a tremendous amount of things that are positive. If they could all look like Zeus [offensive tackle Orlando Brown], but play like Ray… Looks aren't even half of it. It's about making plays." 

A week ago, Lewis had 19 tackles and recorded his first regular-season interception for a touchdown in a 44-6 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. He's averaging 14.3 tackles a game, has intercepted four passes and has deflected 10 passes with two forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. "I am having the most fun of my life right now just playing the game," Ray Lewis said. "I love football. It is beautiful to see it all come together." 

Days before the 49ers game, Lewis flashed his Super Bowl ring as a reminder of how the Ravens won their final seven regular-season games in 2000 and went on to defeat the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. He regularly conducts film study sessions at his house attended by safety Ed Reed and several other defenders. "I get very emotional when I talk and I give them what they need, what they are looking for," Lewis said. As for showing his diamond-encrusted bauble from the Super Bowl campaign, Lewis said: "It wasn't needed. When I have a gut feeling and I don't share it with my teammates, I am cheating them. I had that gut feeling that we were about to go on that roll again. I haven't had that feeling since 2000. "I said to myself, 'The only time that I will take my ring out of my safe is when I know we have a chance to go back.' I know we have a chance to go back. So why not capture the moment?" 

The Ravens haven't allowed a touchdown in 82 minutes and 44 seconds and have 27 takeaways this season. Lewis has been at the center of the improvement. "Any stretch that Ray Lewis plays well doesn't surprise me anymore," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "His focus, his energy in the games, you expect it. I know you're not privy to it, but the consistency in which he approaches practice has the same passion and energy you see on Sunday. "That's what separates him from the rest. I have been amazed so often I hope I don't ever get jaded to it." 

Today, Ray Lewis' defense has to contend with a surging Bengals passing game headlined by quarterback Jon Kitna, the AFC Offensive Player of the Month with nine touchdowns and no interceptions in his last three games, talented and talkative receiver Chad Johnson and healthy runner Corey Dillon. The Bengals averaged only 2.1 yards per rush in the first meeting although Lewis was limited to a season-low five tackles as Cincinnati ran the football directly at him. After the Ravens coaches' film study, he was credited with nine tackles. Still, Dillon has a career average of 3.4 yards per carry against the Ravens and once refused to reenter a game years ago against Baltimore. Will it be any different today with Marvin Lewis on the opposite sideline? "Somebody has to tap out," Ray Lewis said. "It is a physical football game. Somebody can't make it through this game, simple. "Either I am going to feed my kids, or they are going to feed theirs. Something has to give." 

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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