Both Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis are first-ballot, "no-duh" Hall of Famers, and both may the greatest ever to play their positions. In each case, Lewis and Manning have combined great physical gifts, outstanding work ethics, and unparalleled competitive desire to set paths in the NFL that will be remembered forever.
For Lewis, who announced that this will be his last season, that path is about to come to an end -- either in Saturday's divisional game against Manning's Denver Broncos, or after one or two more possible postseason games after. For Manning, his amazing recovery from multiple neck injuries has given him a new professional lease on life, which he'll try to extend against Lewis' Baltimore Ravens.
The two players think the world of each other, but in the one-on-ones, history is very much on Manning's side.
In nine regular-season games against the Ravens in his career, Manning has completed 196 passes in 303 attempts for 2,477 yards, 18 touchdowns, and just five interceptions. Manning's teams have also beaten Lewis' Ravens twice in the postseason, with no losses. The Ravens had to know that they were in trouble against this guy from Manning's rookie season -- in a 38-31 Ravens win over the Colts in November of 1998, Manning went 27 of 42 for 357 yards, three touchdowns and one pick.
"Peyton was very mature coming out of Tennessee," Lewis recently told NFL Films. "It's no secret why he's still playing at the level he's playing at."
And as much as Manning has lit Lewis' defenses up through the years, his respect for the great linebacker is equal to Lewis' respect for him.
"Ray is just as intense and passionate in the fourth quarter of the fourth preseason game as he is in the first quarter of a playoff game," Manning said of Lewis. "His passion has not changed one bit since 1998, the first year I played against him."
"He came in the first couple years and lit up the scene," Lewis remembered. "And he made one of the greatest throws [when the Colts met the Ravens in 2007] to Dallas Clark on a big third down. Before Dallas came out of his break, [Peyton] had already released the ball."
As Manning noted at the time, Baltimore defender Corey Ivy could not have covered Clark any better -- it's just that Manning threw Clark open as well as any quarterback possibly could.
"Ray and I have had a number of good battles against each other, and it's been the same way where I've gotten beat. You congratulate him and you wish him luck."
When the Broncos beat the Ravens, 34-17 in Week 15 of this season, Manning's stats weren't that impressive -- 17 of 28 for 204 yards and one touchdown -- but it was the ways in which the Ravens set their defense for what they expected Manning to do, and how Manning countered by audibling to running play after running play that gashed Baltimore's defense. Lewis was not in that game, and Manning is well aware that his presence today will alter the stakes.
"He's made a huge difference for the team in coming back," Manning said of Lewis this week. "You could see it in the energy he brought in that playoff game."
And while Lewis correctly asserted this week that "It ain't about facing Peyton Manning -- it's about facing the Denver Broncos," number 52 will have his eyes set on number 18 more than anyone else.
"He understands the game of football like no other person," Lewis said. "He can take the game plan over. That didn't just happen -- he didn't just wake up and say, 'Oh, I'm good!' He works to be. I guarantee you, there were a lot of hours he spent by himself [preparing].
"That's greatness, man."
For both players, it has been just that. And if it's the last time Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis face off, we can expect the best possible from both players. They know that they owe that to themselves -- and to each other.
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