When something has been so good for so long, those of us who follow pro football tend to have a hyperawareness toward perceived proof of impending demise. On Monday night, there was an eerie coalescence of two such end-of-an-era-tinged stories: The cessation of Brett Favre's(notes) incredible consecutive-starts streak at 297 games, and the collapse of the Baltimore Ravens' defensive aura, which is to say Ray Lewis'(notes) relentless and maniacal mystique.
The Favre story panned out: The 41-year-old quarterback couldn't feel his right hand, stood on the sideline of Monday's relocated game between the Vikings and Giants at Detroit's Ford Field and afterward sounded like a man who really, truly, finally may have thrown the last pass of his incredible career.
That dissolution of the Ravens' defense thing? Not so much.
After an overtime that ended with a gut-wrenching finality for the Texans and a triumphant show of defiance from the valiant visitors, the scoreboard read Baltimore 34, Houston 28, Premature Obituary 1.
That's because the Ravens (9-4), who are still very much a championship contender a decade after Lewis led the franchise to its first and only Super Bowl triumph, got defensive when it mattered most.
After Baltimore blew a 21-point, second-half lead to the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium, surrendering touchdown drives of 99 and 95 yards in the final 11 minutes of regulation, the prevailing wisdom as the game headed to overtime was this: The Ravens' only chance was to win the toss and score on their first possession, because their defense was gassed and powerless to stop sizzling-hot quarterback Matt Schaub(notes) and the Texans.
In terms of the big picture, this seemed to confirm that the recent statistical struggles experienced by the Ravens' D – and the reality that Baltimore had blown fourth-quarter leads in each of its four defeats this season – were surefire signs that Lewis and his teammates could no longer perform on an elite level.
When Baltimore punted after its first overtime possession, a lot of MNF viewers braced themselves for the inevitable. Schaub would take the Texans down the field one more time, keeping Houston's faint playoff hopes alive; the Steelers would all but wrap up the AFC North title; and Lewis, Ed Reed(notes), Terrell Suggs(notes) and the company would fly home immersed in a severe identity crisis.
Instead, as if fighting for its identity, Baltimore's pass rush resurfaced with a vengeance. After a nice push from the defensive line forced a first-down incompletion, Schaub dropped back and was harassed by the threatening advance of Haloti Ngata(notes), the Ravens' human bulldozer of a nose tackle. Schaub fired a pass into the flat off his back foot, cornerback Josh Wilson(notes) caught it in stride and took it to the house, and two quarters' worth of frustrating futility were magically erased.
Lewis, the 35-year-old middle linebacker who is the best defensive player of his era, understood the significance of the moment. "There's always plays that define where you go," he told reporters afterward. "For us to get that win the way we got it, I'm telling you, if you're not happy, there's something wrong with you."
I've gotten some up-close-and-personal looks at Lewis' passion over the years, and I've seen him impact games like few others. In the process, I've learned not to underestimate the force of the man's will.
So even though the Ravens, who host the defending champion Saints on Sunday and trail Pittsburgh (10-3) by a game in their division, may be staring at the fifth or sixth seed in the AFC, I consider them a threat to win it all.
For one thing, Baltimore has done it the hard way before, winning it all 10 seasons ago as a wild-card team and getting to the AFC championship game in the '08 season following a first-round upset of the top-seeded Titans in Nashville.
The Ravens are also the team that represents the biggest threat to the New England Patriots, who appear to be the class of the league right now. Baltimore went into Foxborough and pummeled the Pats, 33-14, in last season's playoffs and suffered a 23-20 overtime defeat in the same setting in mid-October. At the very least, if they have to go back to Gillette Stadium in January, they will not be intimidated in the least.
I'm well aware that the Ravens haven't run the ball as effectively as last year, and that the passing game has lacked consistency, and that Lewis and his fellow defenders haven't been as comprehensively dominant as in recent Decembers. And as Favre's surreal presence on the sideline reminded me Monday, nothing lasts forever, and at some point Lewis won't be the menacing man in the middle that I've come to take for granted.
This much, however, I know: Those of you who thought that day was already here will have to take a chill pill. For that sound you hear is the heart of a champion, beating loudly and resoundingly until further notice.
IF I SLIPPED JON GRUDEN SOME TRUTH SERUM …
After the Texans completed their dramatic comeback to tie the game at 28, Gruden spoke glowingly about the team's penchant for second-half offensive explosiveness: "I don't know what they do at halftime. I don't know what Gary Kubiak says or does. But this quarterback, Matt Schaub, when they get it right they are almost unstoppable. But it's Arian Foster(notes) and it's a bevy of different receivers – and Andre Johnson(notes) is a superstar."
The serumized version:
I don't know what they do at halftime. I don't know what Gary Kubiak says or does. But whatever it is, WHY THE [EXPLETIVE] CAN'T HE DO SOME OF THAT BEFORE THE FIRST HALF? I mean, really, what's the holdup? It's not that [expletive] complicated. They've got this quarterback, Matt Schaub – when they get it right they are almost unstoppable. It's Arian Foster and it's a bevy of different receivers, and Andre Johnson is a superstar. And this team can't make the [expletive] playoffs? Gee, I wonder what they need. Wait, I know: They need a coach who can get them there. I know one of those, and I stare back at him in the mirror every single day. Jon Gruden won a Super Bowl with Brad [Expletive] Johnson – what the [expletive] do you think he could do with Matt Schaub, let alone Andre Johnson? Come on, Bob McNair: Reach into that stupid sweater vest of yours and pull out your fat checkbook and write me one for about $35 million over seven years and LET'S [EXPLETIVE] GO!!!"
TUESDAY MORNING HAIKU
In a purple cap
Brett looks like he's shut it down
Now I am verklempt
ONE E FOR FREE
It's been years since I've bothered to read one of your articles. There I was reading your prediction of the Patriots losing to Chicago. Your dislike of the Patriots in the past was well documented. Why do you let your personal feelings of an organization cloud your judgment when making these predictions? Where is your objective professionalism? I think I'll check in on your writing in another few years, you're a bit too emotional to take seriously.
Hey, look – another affirmation-seeking fan who is convinced that my picking against the team he worships in a particular game is evidence of a massive conspiratorial hatred for all things good and sacred. Since you've been missing the party for awhile, Hector, let me get you up to speed. Among the evidence linking me to emotional dislike of the Patriots: Ranking Robert Kraft as the league's top owner for the fifth consecutive year; extolling the greatness of Tom Brady(notes) for the 8,973rd time and picking the Pats to beat the Steelers, Jets, Ravens and just about everyone else they played this season except the Jets (the first time) and the Bears (oops).
I know what the rest of you are thinking: It's not the Pats he hates, it's MY team.
Just keep on telling yourselves that – though the truth is, unless you are a USC or Stanford fan, I don't dislike that team at all. Remember, I pick against 16 teams each week, and I rank 31 of them below the team at the top (currently … the Patriots!) in 32 Questions each week.
As for Hector: Hey, thanks for reading. See you in a few years!