SAN DIEGO – Sometimes, one play is all it takes to reveal everything essential about a team, its best player and his legacy. Sometimes, in the ultimate team sport, it can be done by one.
On a gorgeous mid-September Sunday, two AFC contenders waged a spirited battle for three hours and 14 minutes, and all that mattered was one man's two-second burst of brilliance that some witnesses will be talking about for decades.
The setup was delicious: The San Diego Chargers trailed the Baltimore Ravens by five points with 37 seconds remaining at Qualcomm Stadium, and quarterback Philip Rivers(notes), who had thrown for a career-best 436 yards, brought his team up to the line of scrimmage. It was fourth-and-2 from the Ravens' 15-yard line, and Baltimore middle linebacker Ray Lewis(notes) could scarcely contain his excitement.
Rivers took the snap and prepared to hand the ball to the shortest and quickest man on the field: 5-foot-6 scatback Darren Sproles(notes). Lewis, the greatest defensive player of his generation, knew exactly what had to be done.
"I'm thinking, 'Snap the ball. Snap the ball,' " the future Hall of Famer said. "There's a backside A-gap, and I promise I'm gonna shoot it. He was sitting out there, and I'm like, I'm gonna kill this dude."
Metaphorically, in one determined act of audacity, Lewis extinguished Sproles, the Chargers and the notion that, at 34, he's no longer at the peak of his powers. Though Lewis may have generated less heat than expected on the free-agent market before re-signing with the Ravens in March, he proved Sunday he's still their most valuable player, end of conversation.
To the 66,882 fans at Qualcomm, Lewis was the human buzzkill. Perfectly timing his rush by taking off a second before the ball was snapped, Lewis shot the A-gap – between center Scott Mruczkowski(notes) and right guard Brandyn Dombrowski(notes) – and did something that made his teammates want to party like John Blutarsky.
As Rivers turned right to hand the ball to Sproles, the quarterback had the sick sensation that something bad was about to happen. It was: Lewis arrived a split second after Sproles got the ball, smashing his helmet into the runner's chest and taking him down five yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Just like that, the Ravens were 2-0, the Chargers were 1-1 and a 10-time Pro Bowler was proclaiming that he'd made one of the greatest plays of his career. The man wasn't lying, either. It was a moment that revealed the entire Lewis package: preparation, intelligence, passion, bravado and ferocious intimidation.
It began, as so much does with Lewis, in the film room: He'd watched enough last week on the Chargers, especially their opening-week victory over the Oakland Raiders, to know what to expect. In that Monday night triumph in Oakland, Sproles had squirted in from five yards out with 18 seconds left to score the winning points, and Lewis was convinced San Diego coach Norv Turner would make a similar call.
"On film, time and time again, you watch it and think, 'Can I shoot that? Can I shoot that?' " Lewis said. "They ran that play earlier, and I should've shot it then, but I didn't – I kind of slid outside. But when the game's on the line, it's 'Shoot it!' When it comes down to it, people stick to who they are, and that's who they are."
So Lewis, unbeknownst to his coaches or teammates, made the executive decision to ignore his assigned responsibility and play the hunch. For San Diego fans, it was a play that undoubtedly evoked memories of another future Hall of Fame linebacker, longtime Chargers great Junior Seau(notes), whose penchant for guessing – and guessing correctly a high percentage of the time – was unrivaled.
"It's a gamble," Lewis admitted later. "If you don't play the play, you walk away saying, 'Damn, I should've played that play.' So I played it."
Few defensive players have ever left such an indelible image on a franchise. In 2000 Lewis was the driving force behind a record-setting defense and the Ravens' only Super Bowl triumph. Last season, out of nowhere, Lewis nearly did it again, ultimately guiding the revived Ravens to the AFC title game before they were taken out by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
This year, with Baltimore and second-year quarterback Joe Flacco(notes) showing surprising signs of offensive explosiveness – the Ravens have scored 69 points and gained 812 yards in two games – Lewis is once again thinking big.
"This is the type of win that can give you that snowball effect, man," he said. "I've been in games where you hold people to 150 yards – that's cute. Stats are pretty, but when you don't win, you're sick. Keeping them out of the end zone as many times as we did, that's championship football."
While allowing Rivers to complete 25 of 45 passes with two touchdown throws, Lewis and the Ravens clamped down when it counted most. Four times, the Chargers got to the Baltimore 10 or closer and had to settle for field goals.
From start to finish, Lewis was a constant menace. He had a game-high 12 tackles (10 unassisted, three for loss), forced a fumble and provoked a Rivers interception with a furious rush on San Diego's first drive of the second half.
He's the 21st century's consummate Purple People Eater, and it's strange to think that Lewis could be wearing a different uniform if things had played out differently over the offseason. During free agency, as he admittedly flirted with other franchises, there was talk of him signing with the Dallas Cowboys or New York Jets or being lured away by a less-obvious suitor. In the end, he re-upped with the Ravens for a reported $22 million over three years, which on Sunday looked like a pretty good deal for the organization. After the game, Lewis insisted he never seriously considered bolting. "No way," he said. "Football's too easy here. I'm building bowling alleys and Hope Centers in my city. I'm gonna move away from that? Hell no. I ain't going through no carousel."
He's still Baltimore's E-ticket, in a way that few non-quarterbacks have ever been for any franchise. Consider that a few minutes after the game it was he, rather than second-year coach John Harbaugh, who was the first to address reporters at the podium next to the Baltimore locker room. I've been covering the NFL for more than two decades, and before Sunday I'd seen that happen, as far as I can remember, zero times.
When Lewis got back to the locker room, he was as unfiltered and enthusiastic as a kid who'd just won his first NFL game.
Said Pryce: "I'm sitting there, like, where the [expletive] did you come from? I thought that [expletive] was fake. I'm like, 'Hell no. That didn't just happen.' "
Later, Lewis said, "I mean, fourth and the game? I promise you, that was one of the greatest plays of my career."
"That was the greatest play I've ever seen," Pryce said. "Seriously."
Suggs emerged from the shower and gave his perspective on the play: "I was trying to beat the [right] tackle with a swim move, and it didn't work out so good. I was thinking, 'Oh [expletive],' 'cause if Ray doesn't make the play it might've been touchdown Chargers."
Lewis smiled and shook his head. "God gets the credit, man. I shot it. It's over. My part is done. Let's go home."
An hour later, Lewis and his teammates were literally sky-high, beginning a cross-country flight that was sure to be festive, a world of possibilities on the horizon.
As the man who made it all possible said shortly before leaving the stadium, "Life doesn't get any better."
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• If the Philadelphia Eagles had the most impressive opening week, destroying the defending NFC South champion Carolina Panthers by a 38-10 score, is it fair to say that the New Orleans Saints own the Week 2 title? New Orleans, coming off a blowout of the Lions, went into Philly and put it on the Eagles, winning 48-22. I realize that Donovan McNabb's(notes) absence was a big deal for the Eagles, but that doesn't explain how a defense that flat-out devoured Jake Delhomme(notes) and the Panthers was toyed with by Drew Brees(notes) and company, who put up 421 total yards. Will the Saints lapse into the same inconsistent quagmire they've been stuck in for the previous two seasons, or will they emerge as a true power? After next Sunday's game in Buffalo, they host the Jets and New York Giants (with a bye week in between). We'll know a lot more after their New York miniseries is complete.
• Coming off last week's unconscionable collapse against the Denver Broncos, the Cincinnati Bengals went into Lambeau Field in a daunting spot: Lose to the favored Green Bay Packers, with the Steelers coming to town next Sunday, and the team could be in crisis mode before the end of September. Instead, the Bengals got some serious validation of their preseason confidence with a 31-24 upset of the Packers, and they did it by being physical and relentless, as illustrated by defensive end Antwan Odom's(notes) five sacks of Aaron Rodgers(notes). Five? Yes, you read that right. Four of the sacks came after Green Bay's starting left tackle, Chad Clifton(notes), was carted off with an ankle injury early in the third quarter. Remember that nightmare endured by Eagles tackle Winston Justice(notes) two years ago in his first NFL start, when the Giants' Osi Umenyiora(notes) had six sacks as he helplessly blocked the defensive end's shadow? Well, Mr. Justice, you have company: Fourth-year tackle Daryn Colledge(notes) now knows what it's like to be a human snowman. (Given that Colledge attended North Pole High School in Alaska, I'm guessing he may have had that lonely, shivering feeling before.) Anyway, it was a terrific victory for Cincinnati, and a good day for Chad Ochocinco(notes), who followed through on his pregame promise to celebrate a touchdown by doing the Lambeau Leap. Did anyone spill beer on him? "No," he said via text. "I wasn't wet so I guess I made it out clean." I can't wait to see what he'll do if he scores against the Steelers, especially if the Bengals are in the process of pulling off a second consecutive upset.
• It wasn't just Odom racking up silly numbers on Sunday; this was a day of eye-popping statistical excess. From a Flying Elvis (Broncos outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil(notes), perhaps inspired by Shannon Sharpe's parachute jump onto Invesco Field at halftime for his Ring of Honor induction, soared past Cleveland linemen to record four second-half sacks in a 27-6 victory over the Browns) to a Fantastic Forty-Niner (San Francisco halfback Frank Gore(notes) had touchdown dashes of 79 and 80 yards, joining Hall of Famer Barry Sanders as the only NFL players to have two scoring runs of 79 yards or more in the same game, as the Niners beat the Seattle Seahawks 23-10) to a Johnson & Johnson commercial (Titans halfback Chris Johnson had 284 combined rushing/receiving yards and three long touchdowns while Texans wideout Andre Johnson(notes) caught 10 passes for 149 yards and a pair of scores in Houston's upset victory) to a Magnificent Master (Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner(notes) set an NFL single-game record by completing 92.3 percent of his passes – he was 24-for-26 – in a road victory over the Jags). Things will calm down next weekend – at least, I think they will.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• I don't want to say a half-full stadium and a season's worth of local blackouts have turned the Jacksonville Jaguars into a deflated bunch, but there sure seemed to be some evidence of that in Sunday's home opener against the Cards. In the second quarter, Jacksonville kicker Josh Scobee(notes) had a 46-yard field-goal attempt that could have cut Arizona's lead to 10-6. But the kick was blocked, and the Cardinals' Antrel Rolle(notes) scooped it up and took off running from his own 17. As Rolle zig-zagged his way to the end zone, the Jags looked like Electric Football pieces in fruitless pursuit. I think tight end Marcedes Lewis(notes) is still huffing and puffing his way toward the end zone; given his apparent lack of horsepower, perhaps he should be renamed Praus Lewis. Then, as Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused" played in the background (OK, it was only in my head, and my mom was telling my dad to turn it off, as she always does), Scobee removed his helmet, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Eccch.
• The Packers, as they have been for the last several years, are the youngest team in the league, with an opening-day roster featuring an average age of 25.7 years. So even though some of us have high hopes for Green Bay, we have to recognize that there will be growing pains along the way. Sunday's prime example: Wideout Greg Jennings(notes), coming off a dramatic, game-winning reception against the Bears in Week 1, had five passes thrown his way and caught none of them, the first time he has been shut out in his four-year career. Then, with Green Bay 10 yards from the end zone and the final seconds ticking away, Jennings was whistled for a false-start penalty that carried a mandatory 10-second runoff – thus ending the game. That's a lousy day at the office.
• That looked like one hell of a party at Cowboys Stadium Sunday night, with Jerry Jones officially opening his new palace to an NFL regular-season-record crowd of 105,121 attendees. If only the Giants had done their part. "Yes, I guess we were the ugly date who didn't want to join the activities," New York middle linebacker Antonio Pierce(notes) cracked (via text) after his team's 33-31 victory on Lawrence Tynes'(notes) 37-yard field goal as time expired. In addition to showcasing a pair of post-Plaxico receiving threats – wideouts Mario Manningham(notes) (10 receptions, 150 yards) and Steve Smith (10 for 134) each had a pair of 22-yard TD catches from Eli Manning(notes) – the Giants prevailed by winning the takeaway battle 4-0. Included were three interceptions of Tony Romo(notes), though the one at the end of the first half that caromed off Jason Witten's(notes) heel was as big of a fluke as they come. The Giants' 2-0 start and team-to-beat status in the competitive NFC East, however, is completely legit.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The extreme change in the Pacific Ocean's temperature at Mission Beach when my wife, kids and I were vacationing there in late June and early July. It was 70 degrees one day, 59 the next. Fifty-nine! I grew up in L.A., spending most of my summer days at the beach, and I'd never heard of anything like it. Neither had my childhood friend Dan, who now lives in Mission Beach. He asked a lifeguard, and the lifeguard said he'd never heard of an 11-degree water-temperature drop over a single day in the summer, either. If anything, in this era of global warming, I figured it might go the other way. But hey, it's nature's show – I just swim there. (For the record, I got in the water at the South Mission Jetty Sunday morning, and it was a blissful 72. Paddled out on a bodyboard, caught some waves, got out smiling and went to work. So no, I do not dislike covering the Chargers … at all.)
2. Why so many people, including at least one NFL running back, insist on referring to the Vikings' Adrian Peterson by the uncreative and incorrect moniker "AP" instead of his true and awesome nickname, "AD" (short for "All Day"). It's bad enough when fans, microbloggers and media members do this, but Lions halfback Kevin Smith(notes), in blaming himself for the momentum swing that set up Peterson's go-ahead, 27-yard touchdown run in Minnesota's 27-13 victory over Detroit, told reporters Sunday, "It starts with my fumble. I think that's what hurt. It was 10-10 and I can't fumble the ball. I give it up and AP comes back and scores." Look, Kevin, I appreciate the accountability, and I realize your team has lost 19 games in a row, so I should probably have mercy. But I can't take it. Stop it Stop it Stop it Stop it Stop it. His nickname is "AD"' say it with me: All Day. There. I feel better. Kind of.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
All week long, as the Jets provided spicy quotes in advance of their game against the New England Patriots, I kept hearing the same garbage: It's foolish to rile up the Pats with idle chatter, because they'll inevitably make you pay. As if, you know, New England's players would somehow reach a higher level of enthusiasm and execution because someone dared challenge them through the press. Well, guess what, sports fans? Jets coach Rex Ryan, safety Kerry Rhodes(notes), defensive tackle Kris Jenkins(notes) and others knew exactly what they were doing when they revved up the rhetoric before this rivalry game. After beating New England 16-9 and harassing quarterback Tom Brady(notes) (15 hurries, five knockdowns) all afternoon, the Jets reinforced the lesson we learned from the other New York team before Super Bowl XLII, when Plaxico Burress(notes) called his shot and delivered: The best way to approach a game against the Pats is to show them no respect.
This isn't to say that I don't respect the Patriots – I think they have the best owner, coach and quarterback in the game, and a bunch of other excellent players. But I suspect that, in the past, too many opponents have been too worried about getting on Bill Belichick's bad side and providing him with motivational ammo, lest they might be Freddie Mitchelled. When the Patriots went 16-0 and ran up the score on numerous foes in the '07 season, as the Spygate controversy raged, there was a whole "how-dare-you-question-us" vibe. And now? Here's the deal, guys: You're not the juggernaut you were in '07. You're going to be challenged, verbally and physically, and you're going to have to cope with it. So wrap your heads around that, and if you are a certain hoodie-wearing coach, you might want to work on your disdainful, dismissive, look-the-other-direction postgame handshake (like the one you gave Ryan on Sunday). I have a feeling the disrespect has only just begun.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"We needed that."
– Text Sunday night from Texans offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan after his team evened its record at 1-1 by shocking the Titans 34-31 in Nashville.
- the Ravens