OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Ray Lewis' final dance didn't come in the final seconds of Sunday's playoff win against the Colts. However, it might happen over the course of 60 minutes in Saturday's AFC divisional playoff game, when Lewis and Peyton Manning tangle one final time.
Standing at the line, Manning will scan the defense before checking his wristband. He will then shout at his teammates to his left and right, gyrating his arms and hands. Answering Manning's pre-snap theatrics, Lewis will tell linebacker Terrell Suggs to move from one side to the other and direct defensive tackle Haloti Ngata to shift one gap over.
Move after countermove, Lewis and Manning will go head-to-head for the entire game. This is the way it's been whenever these two NFL greats face each other. And, for one last meeting, Lewis and Manning are looking to outwit and outlast the other.
"It’s just two people who understand the game very well, and offensively, he understands what things he wants to see, and defensively, we understand what things we don’t want him to see," Lewis said. "That’s where the chess match comes in. You give him what he wants? He beats you. You give him what he doesn’t want? Then you beat him."
It's fitting that Lewis, who recently announced that he will retire after the season, has to go through his old nemesis before leaving the game. No other quarterback has had Lewis' number quite like Manning. Over the past decade, Lewis has beaten the likes of Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger. But Manning has been the kryptonite to the NFL's defensive superman.
Manning has beaten the Ravens nine straight times, the second-longest active streak by one quarterback against a single opponent, according to ESPN Stats & Information. No quarterback has more wins against the Ravens than Manning, and he's never been in the same division as Baltimore. During his nine-game win streak against Baltimore, Manning has completed 65.2 percent of his passes and averaged 247.3 yards passing. He has thrown 15 touchdowns and six interceptions for a 97.4 passer rating.
"It's a whole new game now," Lewis said. "The only thing that matters right now is if we win this week."
Lewis hasn't defeated Manning since 2001, when the Ravens were defending Super Bowl champions and the LB was reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Since then, Manning has ended Lewis' season twice in the playoffs (2006 and 2009). If the QB does it a third time, it will end Lewis' 17-year career.
"Ray Lewis knows how I feel about him," Manning said, "and I'll share that with him at the appropriate time."
The Ravens and Broncos are playing for the right to go to the AFC Championship Game because of the comebacks of Lewis and Manning.
After missing the entire 2011 season with a neck injury, Manning moved on to the Broncos and led Denver to the top seed in the AFC. He was the league's second-highest-rated passer in the regular season and threw for the sixth-most passing yards (4,659) in the league.
Lewis tore his triceps in October and missed 12 weeks before returning for Sunday's wild-card playoff game. With his injured right arm in a brace, Lewis led his team with 13 tackles in the win against the Colts, Manning's former team.
"You can definitely just see from watching the game on TV that he brought a boost to that team now that he's back," Manning said. "Obviously, it's very impressive that he's back from that injury."
Manning and the Broncos beat the Ravens by 17 points three weeks ago. Lewis, though, will quickly point out that he didn't play in that game. Injuries sidelined Lewis and the team's top three tacklers (safety Bernard Pollard and linebackers Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe).
The reason for Manning's success in Baltimore on Dec. 16 was his ability to fool the Ravens' defense. He completed 8 of 11 passes for 133 yards off play-action fakes, including his only touchdown.
It won't be as easy to throw off the Ravens this time with Lewis staring at him across the line.
"There's many a time when I've heard Ray calling out our plays, and he's been pretty accurate at times," Manning said a few years ago.
Manning has won four NFL Most Valuable Player awards. Lewis has been named NFL Defensive Player of the Year twice. They've combined for 20 Pro Bowls and have been named to a total of 12 first-team All-Pro teams.
While much of the focus leading up to the game will be on Lewis versus Manning, the middle linebacker insists the Ravens' mindset isn't about beating one player.
"You hear that time and time again -- and I think for my team, the thing is, it’s not about facing Peyton. It’s about facing the Denver Broncos," Lewis said. "As a team, that’s our No. 1 goal. Who are we going to play? Like I said, just sitting in the team meetings and just listening to everything, everything we’ve been talking about is going to play the team that has won 11 straight games. They have a very hot streak going right now. Arguably, they are the best team in football."
And, for one final afternoon, two of the best players in NFL history will collide.