BALTIMORE — After being handled physically for the better part of two quarters on Sunday, the Ravens appeared on the ropes despite leading the Houston Texans, 17-13, with just under 10 minutes remaining.
Dominated at the line of scrimmage for much of the game, the Baltimore defense had just surrendered a 19-yard completion to Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson, giving Houston a first down at midfield. The Ravens offense was sputtering after going three-and-out on two straight drives and failing to score since the first quarter, and the vaunted defense was being gashed by running back Arian Foster and the Houston offensive line.
The Ravens were in real danger of losing the precious home playoff game they worked so hard to earn — and their Super Bowl visions. But then, they turned to the two men they have leaned on so many times over a decade-plus of defensive dominance.
Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
The two veterans whose performance had come under fire late in the season came up with plays to help assure the Ravens a 20-13 victory and a trip to Foxborough for the AFC championship game next Sunday.
Following Johnson’s reception that moved the Texans to the 50, Lewis beautifully read a screen pass to Foster, wrapping up the star running back for a loss of seven yards that shifted the nervous murmurings of 71,000 fans into a frenzy for the remainder of the game. Instantaneously, the momentum shifted on the next two plays as defensive tackle Haloti Ngata forced a fumble — recovered by the Texans — and cornerback Lardarius Webb intercepted rookie quarterback T.J. Yates for the second time.
“Everybody here has to appreciate that great warriors fight until the end,” Lewis said. “Those are the stories that you’ll always remember.”
That warrior’s open-field tackle of Foster not only fired up the home crowd and his defensive teammates, but it sparked a 45-yard drive by the offense to set up a 44-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff to increase the Ravens’ lead to seven with 2:56 remaining in the game. The hit was the highlight of a strong afternoon for the 36-year-old linebacker, who finished with eight tackles and defended a pass.
Then, it was Reed’s turn to put his stamp on the game. After dropping two other possible interceptions earlier in the day, the 10-year safety picked off the rookie quarterback, who surprisingly threw to the end zone on a first-down play from the Baltimore 38 with two minutes remaining. Reed wasn’t letting this one slip between his fingertips, and Webb wanted to make sure of it moments earlier.
“He dropped two picks,” Webb said. “I’d never seen that. I said, ‘You can have my hands’ and he went and made the pick. So, I said, ‘I need them back, I may have to go get me one.’”
The performance was far from perfect, but that’s who the Ravens are and have been for quite some time. However, with Lewis and Reed potentially playing their final game at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, it was fitting to see both make signature plays to secure the uneven victory.
Not only did Reed give Yates fits in the defensive backfield by breaking up four passes, but the 33-year-old free safety made six tackles, showing better form than he had in recent weeks while speculation ran rampant about his injured shoulder.
“It happens; it’s part of the game,” said Reed in describing his tackling struggles. “I’m also getting old. At one point, I won’t be up here [at the interview podium]. You’ll be interviewing another safety here in Baltimore.”
And with that remark, it was a reminder to everyone who’s followed the respective careers of Lewis and Reed that even the greatest players of all time can’t play forever. If Sunday was the last time Reed or Lewis — or both — played in front of the home crowd, it was a fitting finale to Hall of Fame careers.
When asked about the two veteran defensive players, it was apparent coach John Harbaugh hasn’t subscribed to the criticism levied on both players in recent weeks.
Not even a little bit.
“[Reed] plays defense,” Harbaugh said. “He tackles, even though some people don’t think he tackles. He tackles a lot. Look at home many tackles he has this year. But, then he comes up with the plays, and he made that play at the end. I’m sure glad we have him. He’s a great player.”
And what about his inside linebacker’s play in his 16th career playoff game?
“I’ve always said it, to me, it’s not any different than what he’s been doing the last few weeks,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a great player. He’s Ray Lewis. He’s our leader, and I’m sure glad he’s on our side.”
Lewis and Reed are no longer the dominating forces that once wreaked havoc on opposing offenses every week, but Sunday proved they still have a little left in the tank at the most critical time of the year. Whether that same level of play resonates against the Patriots next week in Foxborough remains to be seen, but there’s no telling what might have happened against Houston if the two greatest players in franchise history weren’t around to make game-altering plays.
One day, they won’t be there. And it’s coming quickly.
We should enjoy it while we can.
“It’s kind of hard to think about Father Time,” said Lewis, who reiterated how much fun he still has playing football after 16 seasons. “I don’t have time to think about ‘when it’s time to do this’ or ‘when it’s time to do that.’ When it’s over, it’s over.”