FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Within the NFL, even as much as Ray Lewis, the historic Baltimore Ravens' defense is known for the play of safety Ed Reed. Across 11 seasons there's been 61 interceptions, 110 pass deflections, nine Pro Bowls and an AP defensive player of the year honor.
He's considered one of the great ball hawks of all time, a brilliant return man and the smart, savvy leader that forces game plans to be built around him. There may not be a defensive player more revered in NFL film rooms over the last decade.
New England on Sunday, 28-13, on the strength of a second half that featured two Tom Brady interceptions and zero Patriots points, the great Ed Reed had never made the Super Bowl.And yet, until the Ravens vanquished
That 2000 Ravens Super Bowl championship team, from which the franchise's tradition of vicious defensive play was born, featured Lewis but not Reed, who didn't arrive from the University of Miami until 2002.
So here was Reed, 34, on Sunday playing a position that doesn't take kindly to age, finally reaching the Promised Land.
"I have no words, man," the sure-bet Hall of Famer said.
Lewis is an over-sized personality, the hulking, preaching force at middle linebacker that's dominated the franchise both in play and persona. From his epic pregame speeches to his colorful introduction dances to his star turns for every in-game mic'd up feature, everything goes through him – at least when it comes to publicity.
And no one on the Ravens voices a problem with that.
Still, he tends to soak up all the attention. There was no narrative in these playoffs about getting Ed to the Super Bowl the way one often develops around veteran stars, such as this year with Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Instead it was about getting Ray back, especially after he returned this month from a torn triceps suffered in October and declared this was his "final ride."
Yet across the locker room there is no less motivation to get one for Ed, too. And even he isn't alone. Linebacker Terrell Suggs has been a Raven for 10 seasons. Defensive lineman Haloti Ngata has done seven. There's more, including offensive guys such as tackle Bryant McKinnie, an 11-year NFL vet and Reed's onetime teammate at Miami.
"Me and Ed kept saying we want to get to a championship like we did in college," said McKinnie, in his second year with the Ravens.
Sunday the media kept working the Ravens' locker room, asking about doing it for Ray. Members of the organization all acknowledged that it was important. Then they kept throwing Ed's name in there, too.
"We have Ed Reed who has never been to a Super Bowl [too]," wide receiver Torrey Smith noted.
Even Lewis was in on that. He's not unaware of the situation. At 37, he's not the player he was and he isn't pretending that he is.
The Last Ride?
"I can only tell you, I'm along for the ride," Lewis said.
His motivation is, he said, everyone else.
"To do it for people that I really [want] to feel what that confetti felt like, just hearing your name being announced going to the Super Bowl," Lewis said.
It's not that Reed is ever overlooked, per se. His ability is unquestioned. He's never been a quiet or boring player. He's returned seven interceptions for touchdowns in his career, including a 108-yarder in 2008. His 1,541 career interception return yards are the most in NFL history. He's also a dangerous punt returner.
And there's never been a lack of praise from opponents. When this AFC title game matchup was set, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who never stops singing Reed's praises – and, who knows, may try to sign him this offseason – was asked about getting to see Ed again.
"I don't look forward to it at all," Belichick said in a statement built from past experience that turned out to perfectly predict a future one.
His career has been a long, slow fight to get to the final Sunday. For years it was about waiting on the offense to develop while the defense carried the team, only to lose bitter and often violent playoff games, to Pittsburgh or Indianapolis or, of course, these Patriots.
The Ravens had won at least one playoff game in each of the past four seasons, only to fall short of the Super Bowl each time.
"I'm just grateful for our coaches," Reed said Sunday. "For everything we've been through since Coach [John] Harbaugh got here. He had a vision of working us a certain way and taking us through something to build something and to create this moment."
For Reed, the trip to New Orleans is perfect. He grew up a little more than 15 miles away in St. Rose, La. He's a restricted free agent, which means his days with the Ravens could be ending. Of course, he's also spoken about retirement over the last couple of years. So who knows what's next. This may be his final ride, too.
What's important is what's now, he said. After winning Sunday he raced to the locker room to call his mom and tell her he was coming home … just in case she hadn't been watching.
And that's the beauty of the entire thing, the story that never gets old: an unquestioned all-timer finally getting his moment, and immediately acting like an overexcited rookie.
Maybe Ed Reed will never garner the headlines of Ray Lewis, but this moment, this run, is as much about he and Suggs and Ngata and the others that joined a vaunted, championship defense as rookies and managed to make its legend greater.
This is, whether anyone is paying attention, their moment.
"To get here, it's amazing," Reed said. "It's amazing to be going back to New Orleans. I'm so grateful. To go to the Crescent City? Here we come, baby."
Here they come.
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