ENGLEWOOD, Colo. –The defense that kept Indianapolis out of the end zone in the Baltimore Ravens' 24-9 Wild Card victory on Sunday was a different unit than the one Denver saw in Week 15.
The biggest difference? The presence of No. 52, middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
Throughout the Ravens' history, which dates back to 1996, Lewis has formed the identity of the Baltimore defense. He recently decided that this is the last season that will be the case for Baltimore, announcing last week that he will retire this offseason.
But Lewis' 17th and final season in the NFL isn't over yet. He recovered from a triceps injury that sidelined him for the final 10 games of the regular season to play a prominent role against the Colts. With Lewis' ability to prolong his Hall-of-Fame career on the line, the Ravens will have an emotional edge the Broncos know they have to match.
"I know, playing for Ray, they're going to go hard every play," safety Mike Adams said. "They're going to make sure that they try to get the job done."
It's not just Lewis' intangibles that make the Baltimore defense a better unit when he's on the field. Lewis' famous pregame speeches and iconic dance moves would carry far less weight if he didn't back them up the way he has throughout his career. Despite playing with a large brace on his arm in his first action since October, with a team-best 13 tackles, Lewis showed in the win over the Colts that he remains an impact player. The 37-year-old Lewis' impact in his return after 10 weeks away from the field caught a lot of people by surprise. Running back Knowshon Moreno wasn't one of them.
"He's a competitor," Moreno said. "He competes and he goes out there and plays as hard as he can each and every play. So I wasn't shocked at all."
Lewis' performance insured that he'll have the full attention of the Denver offense Saturday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
"He's the leader of that team," wide receiver Eric Decker said. "He's a guy that's played a lot of football; he's won a lot of games. He plays it right. We know that we have to take him out of the game. We have to make sure that we block him in the run and pass."
What makes Lewis and the Ravens defense so dangerous, though, is not just Lewis' ability to make plays from his middle linebacker position. When Lewis steps on the field, his defensive teammates immediately respond. The effort of the Baltimore defense against Indianapolis served as the latest evidence of that phenomenon. The win over the Colts was just the second time all season that the Ravens held an opponent to less than 10 points. The only other game this year when Baltimore held an opponent to single-digits also came with Lewis in the lineup, in Week 5 against Kansas City.
"He is one of the all-time greats," tight end Jacob Tamme said. "He is a great player. He brings a ton of emotion to their defense. I think guys play differently when he is in there. We have to be ready for him, get a gameplan going and do whatever we have to do to move the ball down the field and get it in the end zone."