Baltimore's Ray Lewis sacks Tennessee's Steve McNair. Lewis had 187 tackles, including 120 solos, during the regular season.
He is the best player on the NFL's best defense. Maybe the NFL's best defense ever.
Baltimore's defense is so good, in fact, that the Ravens might be able to play over a pedestrian - at best - offense this afternoon in Oakland and find itself in the Super Bowl.
Ray Lewis vows it's the only way he'll ever return to the scene of the crime - as a player.
For non-competing players, the Super Bowl is a week-long party, an orgy of sorts with wine, women and song. Those with style, or with a rep to maintain, travel in limousines packed tight with the ever-present entourage, the money-sucking, spotlight-grubbing wannabes.
Last year at about this time, with the Super Bowl in Atlanta, Lewis plunged into the orgy and emerged in orange prison coveralls, his wrists shackled.
Murderer, the headlines screamed in big, bold type.
“I'm blood-thirsty,” Lewis admitted recently, “but only about football.”
Satisfying that thirst with the physical presence of a linebacker and the quick and almost graceful sideline-to-sideline game of a free safety has brought Lewis acclaim as the NFL's defensive player of the year.
Teammate Rod Woodson doesn't feel that was enough.
“They don't like giving the MVP (award) to defensive players,” Woodson said. “They think the guy who has scored the most points, thrown for the most (yards) or run for the most should get the award. I don't think that's true. Our defense set an all-time record and Ray's the No. 1 reason why.”
Sadly, whether Lewis is the top defensive player, an MVP, a Pro Bowl regular or, someday, a Hall of Famer, there will likely be the asterisk of a dark past.
During what certainly qualifies to be the NFL's most ignominious off-the-field season - don't forget Rae Carruth, the late Fred Lane, and Mark Chmura and a baby-sitter - Lewis was arrested and charged with a double homicide after two men were stabbed to death at a post-Super Bowl party that Lewis and his entourage were attending.
The case apparently was weak, but Lewis spent 15 days in an Atlanta jail before he beat the rap by pleading guilty to one count of obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to probation.
Later, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, not willing to see Lewis escape his always-grinding PR machine, fined him $250,000 for violation of player conduct policy.
As part of his plea agreement, Lewis testified against two co-defendants. Both were subsequently found not guilty and the crime remains unsolved.
So there's the asterisk.
“The man was absolved,” Baltimore coach Brian Billick said to the media after last Sunday's AFC playoff win at Tennessee. “At what point are you all going to take the asterisk off? It's up to you. For us it's an absolute non-issue.”
Maybe so, but Lewis himself fanned the flames with a recent story in ESPN Magazine. Written in the as-told-to style and presented as Lewis's words, it was a rare glimpse inside a slice of his life that the linebacker had previously not shared.
He claimed his arrest was politically motivated.
“I was O.J. Simpson all of a sudden,” he said in the story. “Y'all must be trippin'. I'm O.J. Simpson because I went clubbing with some friends at the Super Bowl and there was a fight outside the nightclub?”
In the story, he admitted he hung around with thugs. For that matter, he basically admitted he was one of them.
“I come from thugs,” he said. “I grew up in drug-infested neighborhoods around robberies and people getting killed. Those people were in my life long before the people paying me now. Thugs helped me get where I am, helped raise me, and I love some of them.
“Nobody is going to tell me who to hang with, not my boss, not anybody. I'm going to be my own man, make my own decisions, and some of them are going to be wrong. But I've learned a lesson.”
Last Sunday, after leading the Ravens with 12 tackles and a game-clinching interception return for a touchdown, Lewis was a completely different man in the locker room.
The king of smack instead spoke softly, thoughtfully, calmly. He was erudite and smiled a lot. Despite a sculpted, muscular body scarred by barrels of tattoo ink, he came across more like a CEO than a thug.
It's the two faces of Ray Lewis.
There's no question who he is on the field, though. He is ferocious.
There are two kinds of line- backers in the NFL - Ray Lewis and the rest.
“The advantage he has over most players at that position,” said Ravens linebacker coach Jack Del Rio, “is he's big enough and strong enough to handle people at the point of attack. Yet he's fast enough to make plays outside the box, sideline to sideline.
“Most guys that are fast enough to go sideline to sideline can't hold up inside against stronger people. Most guys who hold up well against the stronger people can't run the edges like he does. So he's a rare combination. There is nobody at this position who's playing at the level Ray Lewis is.”
Lewis, 6-1, 245 pounds, and in his fifth season out of Miami, Fla., said he fashions his game after Ronnie Lott, the Hall of Fame safety.
“He went sideline to sideline,” Lewis said. “He just threw his body out there. That's what I'll do until the end.”
Lewis, 25, has been a Pro Bowl pick for four straight years and has twice led the league in tackles, but he's never seemed as dominant as during the current season, probably because of the success of his team and possibly because the weight room was his refuge after being released from prison.
His hits are often spectacular bordering on savage, as if every opposing player who crosses Lewis's path is being made to pay for the tarnish now permanently attached to his image.
“He can't wait to play,” said Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary. “You can see it in his eyes. He can't wait to go over and knock someone's head off.”
Lewis had 187 tackles - 120 credited as solo hits - during the regular season according to Ravens coaches, and he has had 12 tackles and an interception in each of the Ravens' two playoff games.
Through good times and bad, Baltimore owner Art Modell has been firmly in Lewis's corner.
“He's the best middle linebacker I've ever seen,” Modell said last Sunday. “He's fabulous, a very special guy, a man's man. To be able to hold up under the vicious attack in Atlanta, a politically motivated trial that should never have been brought to trial, well, he has exonerated himself by the way he has performed on the field.”
After the experience in Atlanta, the Ravens formed a support group, headed by veterans Woodson and Shannon Sharpe, to help shield Lewis from undesirable influences.
“I think he's more cautious about where he's at and who he's dealing with,” Woodson said. “Ray has changed, but the biggest change has been in decision-making.”
Sharpe reached the point of agitation when discussing Lewis after last Sunday's game.
“I would like for you guys to talk about Ray as defensive player of the year with the same passion you were when he had those orange (jail) coveralls on,” Sharpe said, his volume rising with each word. “Give him the same 10 minutes when he was on TV in handcuffs, his beard not shaved, like he had assassinated the president.
“All we're asking is if you talk about one, then talk about the other with the same passion. Look what he's gone through, and every week he comes out and plays better than the week before.”
Lewis said he has turned the page and moved on from the incident in Atlanta.
“The year 2000 is my year,” Lewis said during a conference call interview after winning the award as the NFL's top defender. “It shows that people did not judge me by anything that went on this off-season. They looked at what I did on the field.
“If somebody had told me I'd go through a murder trial, that our defense would set records, that I'd win the defensive player of the year and be on a playoff team that's bound for the Super Bowl, well, come on, that can't happen.
“If you read it in a book you wouldn't believe it. But it's happened, and the other stuff I went through isn't even an issue now. I don't have to worry about it. What happened in my life happened. It's a done deal. That chapter of my life is over. Closed chapter.”