SAN DIEGO — Joe Flacco kept his eyes locked upfield, surveyed his options and saw a powder-blue wall of resistance standing between the Baltimore Ravens and survival. In what looked more like an act of resignation than realistic aerial attack, Flacco flipped a short pass to halfback Ray Rice at the Ravens' 39-yard line — two yards past the line of scrimmage, and more than a quarter of a football field away from a seemingly futile first down.
Then, football's equivalent of a massive seismic event occurred: Rice eluded three Chargers defenders, fought through a collision with another who'd been involuntarily launched, and lunged forward while being dragged down by two tacklers. He ended up just past the first-down marker, and a team that's been defying logic all season had just given the NFL another unlikely jolt. After surviving an excruciating replay reversal that left them inches from defeat, the Ravens parlayed their unlikely fourth-and-29 conversion into a game-tying field goal on the final play of regulation and emerged with a 16-13 overtime victory Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium.
"This was an awesome win," said Terrell Suggs, the Ravens' All-Pro pass rusher, after Baltimore (9-2) remained a game behind the Houston Texans in the race for homefield advantage in the AFC playoffs. "I'm still amazed. You get a fourth-and-29, it's a momentum changer. It was a miracle play."
Now, in a plot twist that may provide the NFL's answer to Willis Reed's one-legged inspiration in 1970 and Kirk Gibson's limp-off blast in 1988, the Ravens are quietly looking forward to another miracle, perhaps this one of the Christmas variety.
More than half a dozen sources told Yahoo! Sports that legendary linebacker Ray Lewis, believed to be lost for the season after suffering a torn triceps in mid-October, is expected to return before the end of the 2012 campaign, perhaps as early as the Ravens' Dec. 16 showdown with the AFC West-leading Denver Broncos at M&T Bank Stadium.
"At the end of the day, you're gonna see Ray Lewis again," said veteran linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, one of the many players attempting to fill the void during the future Hall of Famer's absence. "For the greatest player in Ravens history to be able to return from this injury and come on this championship run with us? When he was said to be down and out? Man, that's critical mass. When he comes through that tunnel, that's gonna be the earthquake and the tsunami."
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Lewis, who gave a fiery speech before Sunday's game and cheered on his teammates from the sidelines, wouldn't confirm his plans to return, saying, "You've got eyes — what do you expect to happen? I'm here to support my team."
A source close to Lewis said the 37-year-old linebacker has been aggressively treating his triceps injury with a variation of the platelet-rich plasma therapy that helped injured Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Hines Ward return from a knee sprain to play in the team's Super Bowl XLIII victory. The source said Lewis could practice as soon as this Thursday — the day he's eligible to do so after having been placed on the "injured reserve designated to return" list six weeks earlier — and almost certainly will return sometime in the next month.
Depending upon the way his arm responds, Lewis could be activated to face the Broncos (the first game for which he'd be eligible), or for the following week's home game against the New York Giants — or, if a more conservative approach is favored, Baltimore's playoff opener. "He might not be back until we really need him," Ayanbadejo said. "Pittsburgh losing probably gives us more time."
"We'll see in another couple of weeks," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said Sunday. "Stay tuned."
Said Ravens coach John Harbaugh: "I would say it's possible. We can't put Ray out there until he's ready to win those battles. But if it can be done, yes, we want to do it."
One player who's especially captivated by the prospect of Lewis' return is Suggs, who recently made a stunning comeback of his own. Described Sunday by Harbaugh as a "walking miracle" — there's that word again — Suggs shocked the football world by making his 2012 debut in an Oct. 21 defeat to the Houston Texans, less than six months after undergoing surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon.
"When I got hurt I asked the doctors, 'How long do I have to sit out?' " Suggs recalled Sunday. "They said, 'Well, the earliest most people come back from this is nine months, but it's usually a year.' I just chose not to accept that. I had to get back. We came so close last year. We're on the brink of something big. I didn't want to leave the job undone."
For a split second last January, the Ravens appeared headed for their first Super Bowl since 2000, but wideout Lee Evans failed to secure an apparent game-winning touchdown catch, Billy Cundiff shanked a 32-yard field goal that would have forced overtime and the New England Patriots escaped with a 23-20 AFC championship game victory.
Evans and Cundiff are gone, but the Ravens who've remained have been galvanized by a desire to complete their quest for a championship. Though Baltimore has been underwhelming at times, particularly in its six road games (defeats to the Texans and Eagles, and tight victories over the Chiefs, Browns, Steelers and Chargers), the Ravens have a three-game lead over Pittsburgh (their opponent next Sunday in Baltimore) in the AFC North and a one-game edge over the Broncos and Patriots in the battle for a first-round playoff bye.
"They say we've had to win close games on the road," Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain said Sunday. "You know what? It's the NFL. They can judge us if they want. We're 9-2. It's football. Not every game is gonna be easy.
"We all understand that feeling from last [January]. It's something we don't want to feel again, and we're all digging deep to try to get back. Look at what Terrell Suggs did. That was phenomenal. They said that man would be out the entire season, and he worked so hard to get back when he did."
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After suffering the Achilles injury in May, Suggs was met with rampant skepticism upon proclaiming his intention to return during the 2012 campaign.
"I don't think anybody believed me outside of this organization," said Suggs, the reigning NFL defensive player of the year. "But I've been fighting for these guys for 10 years. Ray [Lewis] believed me. Right away, he said, 'These are the doctors to see.' He told me about the stem cells. He was on it. He might as well have been my rehab specialist."
Now, when Lewis assures teammates he'll rejoin them, T-Sizzle is among the most fervent believers.
"He keeps saying, 'Just hold it down till I get back,' and we believe him," said Suggs, who had one of the Ravens' six sacks of Philip Rivers on Sunday. "He's gonna do whatever he possibly can to get back. No, [it's] not crazy. If anybody can do it, it's him."
In the meantime Lewis is contributing many of his trademark touches as a team leader, from Sunday's pregame speech (which focused on "faith, hope and love") to the first-down signals he gave while emphatically prowling the sideline in overtime. To get there, the Ravens had to overcome a sluggish offensive performance that included a 10-0 halftime deficit and punts on their first six possessions.
Trailing 13-3 midway through the fourth quarter, Baltimore closed the gap on Flacco's four-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dennis Pitta with 4:19 remaining, and the defense forced a three-and-out. On the Ravens' next possession, however, a holding penalty, two incompletions and a sack put them in that fourth-and-29 hole following the two-minute warning.
With only a single timeout remaining, Baltimore needed a conversion to prevent the Chargers from draining most or all of the remaining seconds on the clock. Flacco, after a good look at his decidedly unappetizing downfield possibilities, checked down to Rice, who caught the ball near the right sidelines and charged past midfield. The runner then made a sharp cut to his left, leaving three San Diego defenders sprawled in his wake.
As the stocky runner raced forward into Chargers territory, he fought through a glancing blow to his right shoulder from Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle, who'd been slammed sideways on a ferocious block by Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin. There were gasps on the Baltimore sideline as Rice lunged forward while being taken down by cornerbacks Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason. Even after a prolonged replay review moved the spot back a full yard—"I needed a Xanax," Ayanbadejo said of the tense delay—Rice, by the length of a football, had pulled off the unlikely feat.
"That's the best play I've ever seen," Harbaugh said afterward.
It was the NFL's longest fourth-down conversion since the 2001 season, and it left Suggs and his fellow defenders convinced that the game would be theirs in overtime. After twice stopping the Chargers, Suggs ignored his body's desire for rest and instead stood on the sideline, clutching his helmet, while Flacco calmly delivered a 31-yard pass to Torrey Smith on third-and-10 with 2:27 left in the extra period. Lewis, who was eight yards from Smith as the young receiver made his rolling grab near the sideline, looked like he wanted to start a celebratory dogpile.
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Three kneel-downs later, rookie Justin Tucker's 38-yard field goal provoked a jubilant celebration that spilled into the cramped visitors' locker rooms at Qualcomm.
"It's one of those defining moments," McClain said. "It's one of those moments when you know what you have as a team. Everybody was digging down deep. The defense couldn't let anybody down."
Was it a moment that might help propel the Ravens into December and January?
"We'll see," Suggs said. "I hope so. I think so."
Of course, if a certain linebacker's right arm continues to heal at an alarmingly rapid rate, the Ravens may be on the verge of getting the greatest motivational push imaginable. In the meantime, he's thoroughly enjoying his role as the NFL's most intense cheerleader.
"There's a million superstars around this building," Lewis said Sunday. "Ray Rice … I mean, wow."
Don't look now, but there's another Ray of hope on the horizon.
1. In his second start as the 49ers' starting quarterback, Colin Kaepernick threw for 231 yards and a touchdown, ran for another score and thoroughly impressed the New Orleans Saints while leading San Francisco to a 31-21 victory. "That kid is good," New Orleans linebacker Scott Shanle said via text Sunday night. "He is a spark plug for that team. Could be the piece of the puzzle that team needs. They are really good."
2. It wasn't quite Jon Gruden/Rich Gannon in Super Bowl XXXVII, but ex-Oakland coach Hue Jackson's knowledge of the Raiders — and Carson Palmer — helped the Bengals prepare for Sunday's breezy, 34-10 victory. "He helps out every week," Cincy cornerback Terence Newman said of Jackson, a defensive backs and special teams assistant. "I like that dude."
3. When the New York Giants are engaged — as they were in Sunday night's 38-10 bludgeoning of the Green Bay Packers — they look as formidable as any team in football. For that reason, a vast majority of players on 31 other teams would love to see them lose their focus and miss the playoffs.
4. With the Rams having gone six weeks without a takeaway, rookie Janoris Jenkins literally took matters into his own hands, picking off two Ryan Lindley passes — and taking both to the house — in St. Louis' 31-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. I was in the Rams' war room last April when they risked a second-round pick on the talented cornerback with off-the-field baggage, and I know coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead are feeling good about that decision as they continue to rebuild a team with underwhelming talent.
5. After Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz threw a challenge flag that kept an egregiously incorrect touchdown ruling from being reversed — and may have cost his team a Thanksgiving Day victory over the Houston Texans — there was an immediate uproar, with speculation that the ridiculously harsh rule could be amended during the season. It will almost certainly be changed at some point before the start of the 2013 campaign, and when that happens, I want credit for having brought it to everyone's attention four days earlier — because it's something I still can't comprehend.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. Spoiler alert: How Whip Whitaker could pull a commercial airliner out of a nosedive by flying upside down, and execute a miraculous landing that saved 96 lives, while drunk, high on cocaine and bleary-eyed from a sleepless party binge.
2. How the Cleveland Browns could force eight Steelers turnovers — including one fumble from each of the team's four running backs — and still have to sweat out a 20-14 victory over their AFC North rivals. The outcome might have been reversed had a dubious down-by-contact call not negated a late Trent Richardson fumble (which Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, who was out of timeouts, was powerless to challenge). "Eight [expletive] turnovers, and we only won by six at home," said one frustrated Cleveland offensive starter. Added a defensive starter: "We should have scored 50 points [Sunday] night." Because the Browns (3-8) are, you know, the Browns, expect them to respond by scoring about 30 against the Raiders in Oakland next week — and losing.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Very good. Liberation"
– Text Sunday evening from Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, assessing his state of mind after his team's win over ex-Cincinnati quarterback Palmer and the Raiders.
Fantasy advice for Monday night's Panthers-Eagles game: