The Ravens are playing better on defense now than they did for much of the 2012 season. It's probably fair to say that the return of Ray Lewis has something to do with the improvement.
There's no question that the Ravens aren't as tough on defense as they were last year or in previous seasons. Teams have gained yardage on the ground and in the air while scoring more points. But the return of Lewis has made a big difference and is a major reason the Ravens advanced to their second straight AFC title game.
Lewis finished with 17 tackles in Saturday's 38-35 victory over the Broncos in double overtime, and there's no question that the Ravens have taken advantage of veteran's return.
Lewis missed the final 10 regular-season games after suffering a torn triceps in October against the Cowboys. He came back in time for the playoffs and has done well in his first two games and helped the Ravens beat the Colts and Broncos even though this will be his final season.
There's no question that Lewis has lost a step. That happens at age 37, but Lewis does a good job of helping everyone get into the right spots, something the defense probably missed with him on the sidelines. He's stepped back in as the leader once more, and the team is following him.
"When you get everybody to buy in, it's just so special when you see it," Lewis said when speaking to the media after Saturday's win. "It changes perspective on what we should pay attention to."
Lewis said he was proud of how the Ravens didn't break apart because they trailed 7-0, 21-14, 28-21 and 35-28. But the defense kept making the kind of plays that stopped Peyton Manning and Denver from taking leads that would be too much for the Ravens to overcome.
"We never wavered," Lewis said. "You can't have wavering spirits. For what we did [in this game], I applaud my team. I think we're special."
Lewis finished with the team-high 17 tackles, repeatedly making plays downfield as Denver was able to run the ball at times. The Ravens needed those holes to be filled. Terrell Suggs added 10 of his own tackles at linebacker, and the defense caused three turnovers that led to 17 crucial points.
In the end, the Ravens want to give Lewis a special ending to his 17-year career. He means so much to the defense and the team.
"We'll take it as long as it's going to take us," Ray Rice said in a post-game interview with the NFL Network. "It's his last ride. Why not send him off the right way?"