Key matchup: Tomlinson vs. Lewis

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Someday, maybe in 2018 or 2019, LaDainian Tomlinson and Ray Lewis will be on the same team -- Team Immortality.

They're going to Canton on roller skates, to use one of Bill Parcells' favorite expressions. Who knows? Maybe Tomlinson and Lewis will go together, as part of the same Hall of Fame class.

They will see each other Monday night, but there will be no talk of bronze busts and yellow blazers. It will just be a field, a game and a matchup that deserves a John Facenda voiceover.

Tomlinson will be running the ball and catching passes for the New York Jets -- his first regular-season game in green -- and Lewis will be stalking him, trying to blow him up at the line of scrimmage and shadowing him on pass routes. It's the proverbial game within a game, except this game involves two of the all-time greats.

"LT, to me, I'm telling you, is probably one of the top three, four backs still in this game right now," said Lewis, the leader of the Baltimore Ravens' defense.

Tomlinson smiled when told of Lewis' comment.

"He's buttering me up," he said. "He's going to try to tear my head off Monday night."

Tomlinson is 31, coming of a poor season that prompted the San Diego Chargers to send him packing. Lewis is 35, still a force, but not the player he once was, especially in pass coverage. His range has slipped a bit, and the Jets will try to exploit that with Tomlinson, the kind of smooth receiver out of the backfield they lacked last season.

Once Leon Washington went down in Game 7 with a broken leg, the Jets had no pass-catching backs to serve as a dump-off option for Mark Sanchez. Their top four backs -- Washington, Thomas Jones, Shonn Greene and Tony Richardson -- combined for only 28 receptions. It's no wonder Sanchez's completion percentage was an unhealthy 53.8.

Prediction: Tomlinson will almost double that reception total. By himself.

"It's good for a young quarterback like Mark to have that guy back there," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said.

Tomlinson was supposed to be washed up, but he showed plenty of giddyup in the preseason, flashing his old change-of-direction skills. He's in fantastic shape, trying to keep that odometer spinning. He's recharged, trying to prove himself. It's weird to say that about a player with 12,000 yards rushing, but this is a cold business.

"Older players in this league," he said, "we're always looking for that chip on our shoulder."

Tomlinson has faced Lewis only three times in nine years, rushing for 105, 98 and 77 yards. He hurt the Ravens as a receiver, totaling 15 catches in those games.

He has too much respect for Lewis to make any negative comments about his coverage ability, claiming that Lewis is too smart, too instinctive to be a liability. Plus, he still packs a wallop.

"You ask a receiver, coming across that middle, if he's lost it at all," Tomlinson said, grinning.

Lewis said he has "complete respect" for Tomlinson, so much so that he won't try to intimidate him with trash talk during a game. According to Tomlinson, Lewis will talk junk to him, but only about other players -- his blockers, his quarterback, you name it.

That's how legends do it.

"Everybody else talks about LT has lost a step," Lewis said. "LT, to me, is probably one of the greatest to ever do it and the greatest to ever keep doing it. ... If you don't respect that, he'll hurt you with it."

Someday, walking through the halls of Canton, Lewis and Tomlinson will be able to tell a story about that big Monday night game in 2010. For now, no stories, just ball.

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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