Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will spot Ray Lewis across the line of scrimmage and then initiate a series of line calls, his helmet bobbing, his arms gesticulating wildly. A crouching Lewis will then bark out orders to his teammates.
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When the Ravens and Broncos kick off at 4:30 p.m. in an AFC divisional game at Sports Authority Field, Lewis and Manning will match wits for the final time. It's a rivalry that started in 1998, but never has this much been at stake. The winner will advance to the AFC championship game. The loser will be forced to swallow another dose of playoff disappointment and in Lewis' case, the end of a 17-year likely Hall of Fame career. Lewis announced that he will retire after this season.
"I think that what's so cool about Ray and Peyton is that they define a generation or more of football from different positions," said Steve Young, an ESPN analyst and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback. "But there's that element of statesmanship, the element that makes it for fans — and I count myself as a football fan — it makes football richer. And it's cool. Those kinds of games have a feeling to watch. They're not just a commodity. They're not just another event. It's something really special and for a particular reason. That's why I'm looking forward to that game."
Building a rivalry
No quarterback has tormented Lewis' Ravens more over the past decade and a half than Manning, whose dominance over Baltimore started when he was with the Indianapolis Colts and has extended into his first season with the Broncos.
Manning-quarterbacked teams have beaten the Ravens nine straight times, the second-longest active streak by a quarterback against a single opponent, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That includes the Broncos' 34-17 victory over the Ravens four weeks ago. Overall, Manning is 9-2 against the Ravens with those losses coming in 1998 and 2001, the signal caller's first and fourth NFL seasons. He is also 2-0 against them in the playoffs, ending the Ravens' season in the divisional round in 2006 and 2009.
After a standout regular-season in which he threw 37 touchdown passes and led the Broncos to 11 straight wins and a 13-3 mark, Manning will have an opportunity to do it again.
"I think every situation, every experience that you have, plays into your next opportunity," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "The offense is very similar to what he has run in the past in Indianapolis. They've built it around Peyton, and that's part of the great thing about it. They've done a great job of building the offense around their quarterback. We'll apply all the lessons that we've learned over the years, and that's the best we can do with it."
Manning, who has thrown 20 touchdown passes and eight interceptions in 11 games against Baltimore, has predictably downplayed his dominance over the Ravens and his final showdown against Lewis.
"Ray is a great player," Manning said this week. "I think it's pretty well documented. I'm sure you guys have lots of old notes from all the times I played against the Ravens and my feelings on Ray Lewis. You definitely can just see from watching the TV ... that he brought a boost to that team now that he's back. Obviously, it's very impressive that he's back from that [triceps] injury."
Lewis and Manning first faced off on Nov. 29, 1998, the quarterback's rookie season. Lewis made 10 tackles and Manning threw for 357 yards and three touchdowns in the Ravens' 38-31 victory. Since then, Manning and Lewis have earned just about every award or accolade, team or individual. Both have one Super Bowl ring and were named the Most Valuable Player of the game. Lewis, 37, has been selected to 13 Pro Bowls, while Manning, 36, has been invited to 12. Lewis has two NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards and Manning has been named league MVP four times.
They have never been mentioned in the same breath as some of the great and recent quarterback-defensive player rivalries, like Warren Moon and Bruce Smith, Brett Favre and John Randle, John Elway and Derrick Thomas, and Steve Young and Reggie White. That could be because Lewis and Manning have never been division rivals or played to decide a conference championship. However, as the two star players on elite AFC teams, Lewis and Manning have always had each other in their sights.
"There are great battles, and it's really more of a respectful thing. I know Peyton and Ray would feel the same way — both ferocious competitors," Young said. "But there is a big piece of the puzzle that is absolute respect. I saw that with Reggie. Every time he'd sack me, he'd look down and pick me up and say, 'How are you doing?' The [greats] of all time actually are athletically competitive. They can be white-hot competitive in the moment and then transition into respect, camaraderie, whatever else there is that's part of the equation."
Sharing common ground
Despite differences on the surface, Manning and Lewis actually have plenty in common. They have long been two of the faces of the NFL, Manning with his calculating and confident grin and Lewis with his intense glare. Both are perfectionists who demand the best from their teammates and combine a deep respect for the history of the game with a relentless work ethic and a love of film study.
"I'm a big believer in the cerebral part of the game," Manning said. "Anytime you take a guy like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, their physical abilities combined with their attention to detail and their film study, that's why they are such special players. As a quarterback, I believe it's a huge part of your job to be on top of the cerebral part — film studies, certainly knowing your job front to back and knowing everybody else's job, as well. I'm a big believer in that. Certainly, there are a number of defensive players that you can tell excel in that field. That's kind of what makes them special."
That's also what makes the chess match at the line of scrimmage Saturday so enticing. Former Ravens and Broncos cornerback Domonique Foxworth (Maryland) said Manning, Lewis and Reed are among the best at the line-of-scrimmage guessing game. He said Manning is a master of calling a dummy snap, then either checking to a different play based on the defense's reaction or faking a play change.