The Baltimore Ravens were hoping former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Ray Lewis could return to practice this week after undergoing surgery last month to repair a torn right triceps tendon.
The middle linebacker has been diligently rehabilitating, using a hyperbaric chamber and platelet-rich therapy to accelerate the healing process.
On the injured reserve/designated to return list, Lewis is eligible to begin practicing as soon as Thursday and potentially play in a regular-season game Dec. 16 against the Denver Broncos.
"I think he will," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said when asked if he anticipated Lewis being back before the playoffs. "That's just the best guess. He's working hard to do that. We'll see.
"Whatever the rules are, I'd say he could practice as soon as the rules allow him to practice. We'll have an update for you on that."
Lewis will have to prove to team officials that he can fend off blocks.
He wasn't having a banner season before his injury, getting shoved around by blockers and failing to corral fast runners in the open field.
"We're going to want him to test it to see if it can hold up," Harbaugh said. "I really don't know where it's at right now. Ray has been in rehab mode. He hasn't been here from a football standpoint in terms of us seeing any of that yet. Just talking to Ray, it sounds like things have gone well. There have been no setbacks. So there's a possibility."
The Ravens have gone with Dannell Ellerbe and Jameel McClain as the starting inside linebackers with Lewis sidelined.
Ellerbe has made big plays and ranks second on the team with 81 tackles.
McClain is third overall with 66 tackles.
"All of our guys would welcome Ray back with open arms if and when that happens," Harbaugh said. "We could stumble at any point in this league, but adding a great player to this mix is only going to make us better."
"I just have so much confidence in who Ray is as a person and a man. We'll just see how Ray does. I know one thing, he's working. He's working harder than any of us can imagine to try to get back and get healthy."
Lewis, 37, has been working out in Florida and in Maryland since the injury.
Since the Ravens are 9-2 and in first place in the AFC North, they could elect to wait and have Lewis back on the field in the postseason or one of the final regular-season games next month, such as their Dec. 23 home game against the New York Giants or a Dec. 30 regular-season finale on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals.
But team officials aren't surprised by Lewis' speedy progress given his work ethic and desire to return.
On Nov. 9, Lewis surprised his teammates and coach John Harbaugh with a visit to practice. Since then, he has been a regular at games and has given pregame speeches to fire up his teammates.
"It's truly great to be back with my teammates," Lewis said in a statement at the time. "I've really missed these guys and the feel of being around the team and in the locker room. I am focused on rehabbing and getting my arm and body as strong as they can be. I will speak in person when I know a little more about my progress. I'm working hard and looking forward to coming back and helping this team. But right now, the focus should be on the guys playing, and I'll be the biggest cheerleader I can be for them."
On Sunday, following a dramatic 16-13 overtime victory over the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium, Harbaugh said Lewis gave an inspirational speech before kickoff to the team.
"Ray Lewis had talked about it before the game. He talked about hope, faith and love," Harbaugh said. "Those are three things that bind a football team together and bind a group of people together with each other and with their creator. There's something going on with this football team that is really special and miraculous. I just couldn't be more proud of them as a coach."
The Ravens have already had one remarkable comeback from an injury this season with outside linebacker Terrell Suggs making it back from a partially torn right Achilles tendon sustained in April and returning for the Ravens' Oct. 21 loss to the Houston Texans where he recorded a sack.
On Sunday, Suggs reiterated what he's said all along: that the team is trying to hold its own until "The General" returns.
"We've been hit with a lot of injuries this year, but (Lewis) keeps telling us to stay the course and that the mission hasn't changed," Suggs said. "So, hold it down until he gets back and that's what we're doing."