Sometime after the season is over, Peyton Manning will sit down with Ray Lewis and congratulate him on a job well done.
During Lewis' 17-year career, he redefined his position and cemented himself as one of the most fearsome players in the game.
What Manning hopes to avoid is congratulating Lewis on winning a second Super Bowl.
In what could be the last game for Baltimore's seven-time All Pro linebacker, who is retiring after this season, the Broncos and Ravens meet Saturday in the AFC divisional playoffs. Two NFL icons, each three wins away from a second championship.
"I've addressed it every time I've played against him. He's an excellent player," said Manning, who'd rather share his most heartfelt praise for Lewis with the man himself than with the media. "He's special. That's all you can say."
Special as Lewis may be, Manning has won his last nine games against the Ravens.
Befitting a player who thinks about Super Bowls above all else, only one of the defeats really sticks with Lewis: a 15-6 loss to the Colts in the 2006 divisional playoffs. Indianapolis then won the Super Bowl.
"We gave up five field goals to him and they went on to win the Super Bowl," said the inside linebacker, who returned from a biceps injury last week and finished with 13 tackles in a 24-9 win against the Colts. "That hurts to lose to somebody you thought you had beat and then they go on to win the Super Bowl. All the other times, whether you win or not, there's only one champ at the end of the day, and if that isn't you or the team that beat you, then so be it."
The Broncos (13-3) are nine-point favorites against the Ravens (11-6) and the odds-on favorite, at 3-1, to win the title.
And while Lewis may carry the baggage from the game six years ago, it's the meeting between these teams a mere four weeks ago in Baltimore that holds the most weight in the respective locker rooms this week.
Denver won that game 34-17, though it really wasn't that close. Manning threw for only 204 yards, but Knowshon Moreno rushed for 115 as the Broncos built a 31-3 lead. The Ravens, playing without Lewis that day, got a couple courtesy scores at the end.
For Denver, it was supposed to be the first truly stern test during what has become an 11-game winning streak, compiled mostly against teams with losing records that were out of the playoff picture.
For Baltimore, it was a humbling comedown, but one the Ravens have spent this week excusing, going with a variety of explanations: Lewis and several others were out of the lineup, Broncos receivers pushed off too much, etc.
"We'll make it different," said Ravens receiver, Anquan Boldin, in a tone-setting statement that came after Baltimore's win in the wild-card round. Boldin got shut out in the first meeting against the Broncos.
The Broncos have not been big on bravado all season and they're not changing a thing for the playoffs. With Manning setting the tone, they remain focused and sound very much like a team that isn't taking anything for granted — not even a rematch against a team Denver beat by 17 on the road.
"That was then and we're getting ready for now," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "It was almost a month ago. We had a plan, went up there and we played pretty well. Each week we start fresh and talk to our guys about the things that they're good at, the things we need to be able to limit."
In addition to Boldin, who had 145 yards receiving against the Colts, the Broncos must keep tabs on versatile running back Ray Rice. They did that well in the first meeting, when Rice finished with 38 yards rushing and 3 receiving. Baltimore was trailing 10-0 late in the second quarter when Chris Harris picked off Joe Flacco's pass and returned it 98 yards for a touchdown.
"Before that turnover, that's when the turn of events happened with guys out," Rice said. "We aren't going to make any excuses, but I don't want to go into that game letting their defense dictate how we play ball. We have a certain way we play around here. It's playoff football."
The Broncos like to think they've been playing playoff football for a while. Manning certainly has. All the doubts about his throwing motion, the strength of his neck and the chemistry with his receivers have pretty much been erased over a season in which he threw for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns.
One of the few remaining question marks is Manning's 0-3 playoff record in games played when the temperature is below 40 degrees. The high in Denver on Saturday is forecast to be 20. Manning has been practicing and playing with a glove on his throwing hand for the last few weeks — a nod to the reality of the changed feel of his grip since his neck surgeries. Everything else, however, remains the same concerning his preparation.
"I had an old coach who used to always say, 'If all of a sudden you have to do something different in the postseason to get ready to play, that means you probably haven't been doing the right things during the regular season to get ready to play,'" Manning said. "So I've always tried to prepare every single week as if it was a playoff game or the Super Bowl, whatever it is. That's your job as an NFL player."
If Manning does his job this week, he will bring Lewis' career to an end with only one Super Bowl title while the quarterback will remain in line for his second. Lewis insists the Ravens are ready.
"Arguably, they are the best team in football," he said. "If that's what it is, then let's line up and let's be who we are, and let's get ready to play the best team in football."
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