BALTIMORE — During his 14 seasons of professional football, Brendon Ayanbadejo has enjoyed an abundance of enriching experiences. He has seen the world, having played for teams in Vancouver, Toronto and Amsterdam; he has worn the uniforms of the Dolphins, Bears and Ravens; he has played in three Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl; he has been publicly rebuked by a politician for speaking his mind; and he once sat in Nick Saban's office and told him he "should devote more time to coaching and less time to being a jerk."
On Sunday morning, however, Ayanbadejo was privy to a moment that may move right to the top shelf of his memory bank. As the passenger in fellow Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis' white Infiniti on the drive from the team's downtown hotel to M&T Bank Stadium, where Baltimore was hosting the Indianapolis Colts in a first-round AFC playoff game, he had a shotgun seat on one of football's most celebrated last rides.
What Ayanbadejo witnessed was an outpouring of gratitude from an adoring public and an emotional teammate savoring every second of the journey to the final home game of a legendary career. He also saw something he never thought he'd see.
"I've never really seen Ray nervous before," Ayanbadejo said after the Ravens, by virtue of a 24-9 victory over the Colts, moved on to face the top-seeded Denver Broncos in the Mile High City next Saturday and extended Lewis' final drive for at least another six days. "I mean, Ray Lewis doesn't get nervous. Well, Ray was nervous. It was a pretty amazing sight."
On a playoff weekend full of intriguing screen shots, from Aaron Rodgers' tundra-cool efficiency in Titletown Saturday night to Robert Griffin III's heartbreaking, knee-buckling mortality in nearby Landover, Md., Sunday evening, Lewis' passionate farewell to and from the fans of Baltimore provided the most striking series of images.
In his first game since tearing his right triceps last Oct. 14, an injury which at the time seemed destined to end his season, Lewis made a team-leading 13 tackles and helped the Ravens regain their swagger in advance of their impending rematch with Peyton Manning's Broncos, a team which beat them in Baltimore three weeks ago.
Not long after Lewis took a sentimental victory lap around the stadium for the tens of thousands of fans who'd stuck around to honor him, one of his longtime brothers in mayhem spoke in bold, defiant tones about the Ravens' prospects.
In the eyes of Baltimore's star pass rusher, Terrell (T Sizzle) Suggs, the Ravens have more than a puncher's chance now that their vaunted leader is back among them.
"I think we're still kinda playing possum," said Suggs, whose Ravens stumbled into the playoffs with four defeats in their final five games after opening the season 9-2. "We're not telling the whole story. Everybody knows that when they play us, they've got a fight on their hands. What kind of fight, they don't know.
"Sometimes we can be crafty, and wear 'em down with a good plan and win on points. Sometimes we can go for the knockout, and down they'll go. The thing is, they don't know. We're not showing our hand just yet. But we do pack a punch."
If nothing else, expect this Ravens team to go down swinging. Though Baltimore has now won at least one playoff game in each of the past five seasons — a timeframe which, not coincidentally, correlates with the respective tenures of Flacco and head coach John Harbaugh — the Ravens have fallen short in their quest to reach the second Super Bowl in franchise history.
Last January, Baltimore came hauntingly close before a pair of lamentable late mistakes doomed them to an AFC championship game defeat to the New England Patriots. The Ravens' attempts to regroup for 2012 were derailed by a series of significant injuries, beginning with Suggs' Achilles tendon tear last May. Yet Suggs, who told Yahoo! Sports he battled through Achilles pain in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game — and who is also playing through a biceps tear he suffered last month — has defied conventional medical wisdom to remain an active part of a team he believes is on the verge of doing "something special."
Whatever happens from here on out, Ray Day was undeniably special for all who experienced it, from the 71,379 voluble fans to the teammates that made sure Lewis went out a winner. Certainly, his surprising announcement four days earlier at a team meeting had its desired effect, galvanizing the rest of the Ravens while instilling the requisite sense of urgency.
"Man, great planning by Ray," conceded Colts receiver Reggie Wayne (nine catches, 114 yards), who followed Lewis at the University of Miami. "Great timing by him. It worked. They're gonna ride the Ray Lewis Wave."
Does Wayne, a longtime teammate of Manning's in Indy, believe the Ravens can still be standing after Saturday's game against the Broncos in the Mile High City?
"Yeah, I think they have a shot," he said shortly before boarding the team bus to the airport. "They know Peyton well. The secondary will have to step it up, but they've got what it takes. It's different with Ray."
And as Lewis would later admit, Sunday's long-awaited return — and the certainty that it would be the last game he plays in the house where he is worshipped — felt differently than any competitive endeavor he'd experienced.
Ayanbadejo, whose social-media savvy helped him become a leading advocate for the recent ballot proposition which legalized same-sex marriage in Maryland (his outspokenness earned him the aforementioned scorn of a state delegate, was determined to document the occasion when Lewis asked him to be his co-pilot on that final trip to the stadium.
"I didn't have anything playing in my car," said Lewis, who spent the final play of his final home game as the fullback behind kneeling quarterback Joe Flacco. "I had no phone out. Brendon … was bugging me to take a picture and capture all these things for Twitter. I was like, 'I don't do Twitter and all that stuff.' I was just in one of those moments to where I really wanted to appreciate the ride."
Eventually, Ayanbadejo whipped out his iPhone and started filming, but in a manner he felt jibed with Lewis' sensibilities.
"Ray's not big on social media, but as we got ready to pull into the stadium he was like, 'Record this for me,' " Ayanbadejo recalled. "I know how he is, so I didn't record him; I recorded it from his point of view.
"Usually, when Ray rolls in, he's low-key. This time, he was honking and waving. He has tinted windows, but everyone knew it was his car, and when I rolled my window down and started filming, the love he got was amazing. When we parked, we looked at each other, dapped each other up, embraced one time and said, 'Let's do it.' Then we opened the doors, and it was an onslaught of love.
"It was a special moment. The whole time I felt so lucky to be there. I'm thinking, 'This is the last drive, and I get to be part of it.' "
The game was less memorable, though Ravens wideout Anquan Boldin (five receptions, 145 yards and a game-clinching, 18-yard touchdown catch while closely covered in the back corner of the end zone with 9:14 remaining) did his best to energize an offense that has been wildly inconsistent this season.
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Lewis had one particularly impressive moment, shooting into the backfield to drop Indy running back Vick Ballard on the second play of the Colts' second drive, but blew his biggest chance for glory. It came just after Justin Tucker gave the Colts a 3-0 lead with 11:23 left in the second quarter. On first-and-10 from his own 20-yard line, Indy's impressive rookie quarterback, Andrew Luck, dropped back and got clocked by defensive tackle Haloti Ngata while throwing over the middle, dislodging the ball from its intended path.
Lewis, standing on the Colts' 34, was in perfect position to catch it, with lots of room to run. An entire stadium gasped in anticipation. He reached out to grab it, but the bulky brace on his right arm seemed to interfere, and it popped up in front of him. He had a second chance to come down with it and failed again, and his final, desperate lunge fell short as the football hit the turf.
"I will never live that one down," Lewis told reporters, smiling. "I'm going to put that one on the brace, because I tried to put my arm up, but the brace wouldn't come up."
Said Ayanbadejo: "It stops him from fully [extending] — he can't bend his arm all the way, or turn it too far in either direction. Besides, you've got to give him the benefit of the doubt. He's Ray Lewis. He's too great to drop a football."
As jubilant and crowd-pleasing as Lewis was in the game's final moments, and in its immediate aftermath, his locker-room demeanor was one of a comfortable veteran soaking up every last playful moment with his brothers in arms.
"What just happened out there?" Suggs, whose locker is next to Lewis', howled as he undressed. "Did they smell the end zone?"
"No," Lewis answered. "I don't believe they did."
"Only field goals," Suggs said. "And if you hold 'em to field goals …"
"They can't win!" Lewis interjected.
There was a pause, after which Suggs said, "Well — there was that one time." Both men laughed at the reference to the Ravens' 15-6 defeat to the Colts, then quarterbacked by Manning, in a 2006 divisional playoff game.
Lewis chatted up linebacker Courtney Upshaw, an Alabama alum, about Monday's BCS title game, saying, "Yo, 'Alabama' — that Notre Dame's gonna be rough, now."
A few seconds later, Lewis pulled out his iPad and handed it to a team employee. "I need 'em to download Denver [game tape] now," he said. "I'll come pick it up as soon as they're done. I need to start watching them [Sunday night]."
I asked Suggs if he got choked up during the game, and he nodded his head yes. "Especially when we went out of the tunnel [before the game]," he said. "How can I not get emotional? He's been my teammate for 10 years. Me and [safety] Ed Reed have been his teammates the longest. And this was his last time."
He looked over at Lewis and yelled, "Without Big Bro, how they gonna be able to control me?"
"I don't know," Lewis said, shaking his head and smiling. "I truly don't know."
Then Suggs alluded to a contentious, late-October team meeting during which several players loudly challenged Harbaugh: "Remember how that meeting got out of control? That was the first meeting you were gone! It was epic. That's what happens [when you're gone]."
Thanks to the Ravens' collective determination on Sunday, Lewis isn't gone yet. And Ayanbadejo, who last month expressed the belief that there are no great teams in today's NFL, remains hopeful that the Ravens can fill that vacuum and make Lewis' last ride end triumphantly in New Orleans next month.
"Like I said before, there are no great teams — it's just timing," Ayanbadejo reasoned. "Every team is vulnerable, every single time they take the field. We think it's our time to put together a streak of great football. We think it's our time to be great."
Rest assured Ayanbadejo's words weren't the product of false bravado. He has been known to be brutally frank — ask Saban, who'll coach Alabama in Monday's BCS game against Notre Dame. Shortly after Saban was hired as the Dolphins' coach in 2005, he traded Ayanbadejo to the Bears, who would reach the Super Bowl the following season. Before departing Miami's training facility, Ayanbadejo was summoned to the coach's office.
"He asked me if I had anything to say to him," Ayanbadejo recalled Saturday afternoon while dining at a restaurant near his home in Towson, Md. "I told him the truth."
You're a good coach. You should devote more time to coaching and less time to being a jerk.
We could — and perhaps will, if the Ravens reach the Super Bowl — devote an entire column to Ayanbadejo's entertaining life experiences. In the meantime, and in the interest of full disclosure, there is one man who takes issue with a central premise of the linebacker's perception of Sunday's last ride.
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After Lewis completed his news conference, he returned to the locker room for a minute before exiting the stadium. As he gathered his belongings, I asked him if, as Ayanbadejo had suggested, he had indeed been nervous on the drive to the game.
"Nervous?" he asked, pursing his lips. "No. Just savoring [the moment]."
On Sunday, a city, a franchise and 52 grateful teammates took a nice, long sip of No. 52 and relished the experience — down to the last drop.
1. After the game, I told Lewis I enjoyed his cameo appearance as the fullback in the Ravens' victory formation. "I like it, too," he said smiling. But what I'd really like is to see what would happen if Lewis were to be employed in a similar role with his team closing out a narrow victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — to observe how he'd react when Greg Schiano did his inevitable Greg Schiano thing.
2. My assessment of the Packers following Saturday night's 24-10 victory at Lambeau Field over the punchless Vikings, who turned to backup Joe Webb because of starting quarterback Christian Ponder's elbow injury and turned into a team incapable of completing a forward pass: Flawed defense; suspect offensive line; unimpressive running game; tough second-round draw (facing the rested 49ers in San Francisco); transcendent quarterback. And scarily, that may be enough to get them to New Orleans.
3. Ron Rivera has finished strong after rough starts in each of his two seasons as the Carolina Panthers' head coach, and I'm glad owner Jerry Richardson elected to retain him for 2013. If you disagree, let's revisit this subject a year from now. I'm not always right, but it happens with alarming regularity. Speaking of which …
4. I told you back in early September that the Seattle Seahawks were really good. It's official — they're really good. While RG3's injury understandably commanded much of the attention following the Seahawks' 24-14 victory over the host Washington Redskins Sunday evening, the brutal truth is that Seattle's defense, after a choppy first quarter, settled down and manhandled their overmatched opponents. "We were very physical," Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said via text message as he rode the team bus from the stadium to the airport Sunday night. "Just had to play disciplined." (On a side note, I hope most of you are disciplined enough to focus on what I said about the Seahawks back in September without commenting upon some of my other predictions, like the one that the Bills would make the playoffs. Oops.)
5. Among the many joys of the Colts' successful and emotional 2012 season following a miserable, 2-14 campaign has been the revival of Wayne, who on Sunday moved into second place on the all-time NFL postseason receptions list, with 92. The leader, Jerry Rice, has 151. He was kinda good. Just sayin'.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How ridiculously vibrant the scene was at Bond Street Social in Baltimore's Fells Point district on Saturday night — and how local boy and rabid Ravens fan Michael Phelps was able to see the end of the Packers-Vikings game through those thick, LeBron James-style hipster eyeglasses.
2. How much madness has marked the Colts' season — and what a great job so many members of the organization did in fighting through it over the past 12 months. When offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who coached the team for 12 games while Chuck Pagano was undergoing treatment for leukemia, was hospitalized Sunday morning in Baltimore for an undisclosed illness (a team source said flu-like symptoms were involved and that Arians is expected to be fine), it seemed like business as (un)usual for this ever-adaptable team. "I can't believe it's over," rookie general manager Ryan Grigson said Sunday night. In essence, however, it's only the beginning: Owner Jimmy Irsay hit home runs in landing Grigson, Pagano and Luck, among others, and Colts fans should be looking forward to many good times in the coming years.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE THE DAWN
Before you rail against Redskins coach Mike Shanahan for allowing Griffin to play through obvious knee discomfort and exposing him to a potentially serious injury, ask yourself how you reacted when Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler left the 2010 NFC championship game with what turned out to be a torn medial collateral ligament. Did you question Cutler’s toughness? Did you feel like he let down his teammates in that home defeat to the Packers? Did you laud him for being honest with coach Lovie Smith about his condition, for realizing that playing hurt might negatively impact his team’s chances, and for not putting the Bears’ team doctors in a potentially compromising position? Think about the answers to these questions, and then decide how you feel about RG3 and the Battle of Wounded Knee.
If there are inconsistencies in your respective reactions, let me know, and I’ll be sure to send you an individual diatribe concerning the ludicrousness of playing doctor from the couch and computer keyboard, and/or trying to peer inside a competitive athlete’s body and soul. Or maybe I’ll go on a diatribe about how bad the losing quarterback (Andy Dalton) looked in the Houston Texans’ 19-13 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Saturday’s playoff-opening snoozer. Or about how bad the winning quarterback (Matt Schaub) looked. Or about the dubious play-calling of Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, who chose not to target the team’s preeminent offensive threat, second-year wideout A.J. Green, until the third quarter of the biggest game of the season. Or the fact that Gruden, in the wake of that underwhelming résumé offering, will reportedly receive an interview for the Eagles' and Cardinals’ vacant head-coaching jobs while a pair of ultra-qualified Bengals assistants, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and ex-Raiders head coach Hue Jackson, can’t seem to get any action. Or about the fact that the still troubling minority-coaching situation, and an even less level playing field among front-office honchos, seems to be getting worse during the current job-filling cycle, despite the Rooney Rule. Or about the fact that, after finishing this column, I’ll barely have time to shower and pack before racing to the airport to catch an early morning flight. Fortunately for you, I am now officially out of time.
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