Lewis has already gained a league-high 1,952 yards this season and is within striking distance of former Los Angeles Rams running back Eric Dickerson's record mark of 2,105 yards that was established in 1984. And Baltimore (9-6) holds a one-game advantage over the Cincinnati Bengals (8-7) heading into a game against a football team it hasn't defeated at home since its inaugural season in 1996. Yes, that dates all the way back to the days when Ted Marchibroda was the Ravens' coach and Vinny Testaverde was their quarterback.
This is a rare case where the team and individual goals are far from diametrically opposed. Rather, they're intrinsically linked. When Lewis rushes for 100 yards or more, the Ravens are 6-4 overall. Baltimore is 3-0 when he rushes for 150 yards or more. "The great thing for us is that this game is for the whole ball of wax for us to go to the playoffs," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, who preserved Lewis' energy by sitting him in the fourth quarter of a 35-0 blowout of the Cleveland Browns after he had already gained 205 yards and scored twice. "We don't have to play any other mind games about, 'What does this mean? Is he up? Is he down? When do you pull him out?' "We're going to need every bit of whatever number he needs to get the record, whether it's 2,000 or above, to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. If he has to run the ball 50 times for us to win on Sunday, he'll run the ball 50 times. I'll be surprised if they even put anyone out on the wide receivers. They'll probably have 11 in the box, for a lot of reasons."
One potential hitch in the probable game plan of a steady diet of Lewis runs: How would the scenario of a Bengals loss to Cleveland on Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati affect the Ravens' plans?
If Cincinnati loses this contest to Cleveland (4-11), the Ravens automatically become the division champions and would host the Tennessee Titans in a wild-card game. If the Ravens and Bengals finish with identical marks, then Cincinnati holds every relevant tiebreaker and would advance to the playoffs. "No matter what happens, we're treating this game like a playoff game," safety Ed Reed said. "The playoffs have already started for us."
Apparently, the Ravens wouldn't adjust their approach whatsoever even if their regular-season finale becomes meaningless and anticlimactic in terms of playoff implications. "No way," Billick said. "How do you prepare all week for a championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers and because of a sequence of events go, 'Oh, now this game's not important, so you can sit down.' "Whatever happens on Sunday in that game is irrelevant because we're playing the Pittsburgh Steelers in a great atmosphere to win the game." Now, the wild-card possibilities are irrelevant because of the Denver Broncos' impressive victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night.
It's win the division or bust for Baltimore.
And that's not an easy task against Pittsburgh. Particularly when matching up with an aggressive front seven headlined by linebackers Joey Porter, Jason Gildon, Kendrell Bell and nose guard Casey Hampton, along with wide receivers Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward.
In the past, Burress and Ward have experienced a lot of success against an improved Ravens secondary that surrendered 260 yards and three touchdowns to Tommy Maddox in the first meeting. "In order to beat Pittsburgh, we have to defend the pass better than we have, plain and simple," Billick said. Since that game, the secondary has improved markedly and now features two Pro Bowlers in Reed and cornerback Chris McAlister.
In regards to Lewis against the Steelers, it's not exactly a do-whatever-he-wants type of proposition. Last season, the first-time Pro Bowl selection gained 86 yards and 34 yards in two losses to Pittsburgh. Plus, the Steelers handled Baltimore in a season-opener in Pittsburgh, 34-15, as Lewis rushed for only 69 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. He also fumbled to set up a Maddox touchdown to Ward.
Pittsburgh(6-9) ranks 11th against the run overall and sports the ninth-ranked defense under blitz-inclined defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. So, don't expect any departure from the Ravens' usual profile. Meanwhile, a verbal altercation ensued between Ravens All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis and Steelers linebacker Joey Porter during the first meeting. Porter missed the game after being shot in the upper thigh, but accused Lewis is mocking his trademark "boot" after tackles during pregame warmups. They continued a heated discussion afterward, too. Lewis denied any attempt to bait Porter and said he merely inquired about his health and told him he was in his prayers. "It's on," offensive tackle Orlando Brown said. "We don't forget disrespect like that and I know my man, Ray, hasn't."
Primarily, this week is focused on defeating a Steelers team that's already stated it would love to spoil the Ravens' playoff aspirations. Lewis' yardage total and place in history is a subplot, whether the Bengals lose or not. "If that should happen, it's too late," Billick said. "We have committed. You can't do that to a team. You can't prepare them mentally with the proper mindset in terms of game plan, emotional, spiritual, physical, mental to go into a game and then at the 11th hour say, 'Oh, this game, we don't need now, so come out.' "You can't do that. The repercussions for that going into the playoff game would not be worth it. Sunday night is on."
Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.