Ray Lewis: Ravens Legend Key to Stopping Peyton Manning and Broncos

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2013

BALTIMORE, MD - JANUARY 06: Ray Lewis #52 of the Baltimore Ravens during a game against the Indianapolis Colts during the AFC Wild Card Playoff Game at M&T Bank Stadium on January 6, 2013 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

If Saturday's game against the Denver Broncos proves to be Ray Lewis' last, he can walk away knowing he was a game-changer until the very end of his career. 

Lewis has informed his teammates that he will be retiring following the postseason (h/t Baltimore Sun), which means that the team's game against Denver could very well be his last in the NFL.

Since the beginning of his career, Lewis has been a pivotal part of the Ravens defense. For most of those seasons the Ravens have been one of the best defensive teams in football and Lewis has been one of the best defensive players in the league.

With his career winding down, the Ravens defense has been a reflection of the man himself. A little long in the tooth and a step slower than we have grown accustomed to seeing them, the usually fierce unit has been just mediocre this season. 

Lewis struggled with injuries all season and missed 10 games with a torn triceps muscle. The defense ranked just 17th against the pass and 20th against the run. As Lewis has gone from elite to average, so too has the Ravens defense. 

Average won't get the job done against the streaking Broncos, though. That will take a vintage effort from both Lewis and the defense. 

With Peyton Manning at the helm, the Denver Broncos have transformed into one of the best offenses in the NFL in 2012. They score 30 points per game, rank fifth in passing yards per game while running for more than 100 yards per game and are downright scary when they go no-huddle. 

Lewis will be called upon to play great coverage against the likes of Jacob Tamme, one of Manning's most trusted targets and a big part of what the Broncos do in the passing game while also remaining in the box to read the run. 

This is a matchup that will stretch Lewis to the max physically, but most important will be his role as a leader. 

As the elder statesman of the Ravens defense, no one knows the defense better than him. Lewis is, at the risk of sounding cliche, the "quarterback of the defense." The most important thing that Lewis must do in this game is to put his teammates in the right mind and position to defeat Manning's Broncos. 

Manning is one of the greatest read-and-react quarterbacks of all time. For every look that a defense can give him before the snap, he has the counter to it. It takes a veteran of equal savvy to counteract something like that. 

If the Ravens are to pull off the upset against the heavily favored Broncos, it will be thanks to an improbable effort from Lewis and the Ravens defense. Considering the type of leader that Lewis has been for more than a decade and his reputation around the league, fans should expect nothing less than everything he has left in the tank to extend his career by at least one more game.