Colts, Ravens Played For Something More

Heading into the second half of Wild Card Matchups, the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts are playing for more than just the chance to face Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos next week. As if a Playoff game needed to have any more drama to it, both franchises certainly raised the stakes for Sunday’s contest. There are plenty of engaging story lines for this game. Sunday’s contest pits Baltimore’s current team against its former franchise that vacated the city back in 1984. If emotions were not high enough from that widely criticized move, the inspiration levels will be at an all-time high.

For Baltimore, their defensive leader Ray Lewis announced that this season would be his “last ride.” After a stellar career, the Raven’s franchise leader in virtually every defensive category, will play his last home game with the team at M&T Bank Stadium against rookie Andrew Luck and the Colts. The only way the Ravens will return home this postseason is if they win twice and the No. 5 seed Cincinnati Bengals also make it to the AFC title game. Barring that unforeseen scenario, this will be Lewis’ final dance in Baltimore. Lewis, 37, is certainly headed to Canton when he becomes eligible with numerous awards including Super Bowl XXXV MVP, 13 Pro Bowls, 3-time Defensive Player of the Year, and being named a member of the 2000’s All-Decade team. Lewis, known for his durability, is the all-time leader for games started and seasons played at Inside/Middle Linebacker position. Not bad for a guy who got off to a very shaky NFL career.

After three All-American seasons as a member of the Miami Hurricanes, Lewis decided to forego his last year of collegiate football for a shot at the Pros. In the 1996 NFL Draft, Lewis was drafted 26th by the Ravens. Three other Linebackers were taken ahead of Lewis, but not one has done anything as memorable as Lewis. However, tragedy struck Lewis when he and two companions were indicted on murder charges following a fight in Atlanta back in 2000. Lewis was eventually dismissed of all charges and fined $250,000 by the NFL, which was then-considered to be the largest ever levied against an NFL player. Though acquitted, Lewis’ reputation took a bit of a hit with fans of the NFL.

A prime of the negative attitudes towards Lewis came in the following year. Just one-year removed from his dismissed murder charges, Lewis and his Ravens won the Super Bowl. The famous post-game phrase “I’m going to Disney Land,” usually reserved for the Super Bowl MVP, was instead given to QB Trent Dilfer instead of Lewis. However, Lewis’ intimidating play and visible leadership qualities have slowly helped rebuild his reputation. Since then, Lewis has been featured on the cover of the world’s most popular sports game in EA Sports Madden NFL 2005. His 2005 “Madden Curse” Season (Yes, it’s real) and 2012 seasons have been the only two in his 17-year career where he has missed major time due to injury.

Outside of football, Lewis is a man of his community. He founded the Ray Lewis 52 Foundation, a non-profit corporation with a mission to provide personal and economic assistance to disadvantaged youth. Lewis has since been involved in pressing the importance for a stronger commitment to disability sports as well as travelling in the off-season to serve as an inspirational speaker.

Both NFL and Ravens fans alike should have the utmost respect for the commitment Ray Lewis has shown during his career. Lewis’ work ethic and effort have been unmatched by virtually every player to don the NFL logo since he first stepped into the league in 1996. Whether he actually plays in the game, or roams the sidelines, Lewis will certainly provide the much needed energy to a Baltimore team that limped into the Playoffs. “Just having him back on the field is an inspiration,” Baltimore defensive coordinator Dean Pees said.

Ironically, it is the man on the opposing sideline who may have offered up the best quote about the career of Ray Lewis. Colts coach Chuck Pagano, Lewis’ defensive coordinator last year, said, “I thought, shoot, the guy could play forever and would play forever. Great person, great man, great player, just an unbelievable human being — what he’s done for that organization, that city and for that matter, so many people. He’s obviously a first-ballot Hall of Famer and will be sorely missed.”

On the other side of the ball, Indianapolis has a little inspiration of their own. Indy hired the former Ravens Defensive Coordinator around this time last year to take control of a franchise that struggled mightily without their franchise QB Peyton Manning, who missed all of 2012 with a serious neck injury. Pagano wasted no time in making a move that would impact the Colts for year to come when he drafted Andrew Luck with the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Leading up until the regular season, there was a sense of optimism surrounding the new-look Colts.

That optimism was quickly shattered when on September 26 2012, Coach Pagano was diagnosed with a treatable form of acute promyelocytic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Pagano took an indefinite leave of absence of his coaching duties in order to receive his chemotherapy with a vow to return to his team. Instantaneously, it seemed as if the entire Colts community rallied around Pagano and the team. It didn’t take long for the inspiration to take form. The most publicized support of the Colts head coach was done by the two dozen Colts players, and two cheerleaders who shaved their heads as part of a movement to support Pagano known as “CHUCKSTRONG.”

In Indy’s first game sans Chuck Pagano, all Andrew Luck did was rally his team from behind to beat the Green Bay Packers in front of a sold-out Lucas Oil Stadium crowd. After starting the season with a record of (2-3), the Colts had enough inspiration to continue to perform at a high level en route to an (11-5) finish. Aside from a slip-up game against the struggling Jets, Indy surged through the regular season, going on to win nine of twelve games under the guidance of Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians. The Colts were handling adversity much like the head coach who was battling leukemia.  By earning a playoff berth, the Colts joined Miami (2008) and New England (1982) on the list of teams to make the playoffs one year after going 2-14 or worse. In perhaps the exclamation mark on the successful 2012 campaign, Indianapolis beat their AFC South foe Texans in the season finale, which of by the way happened to be Chuck Pagano’s first game back as head coach.

Pagano will be coaching the team that rallied around him in perhaps their biggest game as they head into Baltimore for a Playoff contest. Pagano, who is 2-2 in the regular season, would love nothing more than to give the Indianapolis faithful another reason to cheer. In what could be considered one of the most heart-felt moments of the 2012-13 NFL season, Pagano addressed a touching letter expressing his gratitude to “The People of Indiana.” In his letter, Pagano lauded the Indianapolis faithful by saying,” I knew Indy had great fans, but I might have underestimated just how great. Being new to the community, I never expected the outpouring of support that I received from Colts fans throughout the state and country. The love and support you showed my family and me gave me a tremendous amount of comfort and piece.”

The NFL Playoff season is always a highly anticipated part of each season. Whether your team is playing in it or not, Sunday offers up a match up that extends beyond football. This game is a reminder to all that there is life outside of football for these gridiron warriors, these heroes that play the game America loves so much. Whether it equates to the start of something big for the two big Colts rookies, head coach Chuck Pagano and QB Andrew Luck, or it is the final chapter for one of the most storied and awe-inspiring careers in recent memory, Sunday has everything that you could possibly ask for in a football game. Expect both teams to come out with a little bit of extra fuel in the tank and leave it all out their on the field. Ultimately, one team’s inspiration will continue, and one will end when the finals seconds tick off the clock at M&T Bank Field. Despite the winner of this game, NFL fans should mark this date on their calendar, because there may never be a Playoff game as memorable or as meaningful as what will take place Sunday.

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