A look back at five of Ray Lewis' most memorable games

This week’s NFList takes a look back at five of Ray Lewis’ most memorable games through the eyes of two of his former coaches (ex-Ravens LB coach Maxie Baughan and head coach Brian Billick), a former competitor-turned-colleague (former Giants head coach Jim Fassel, who later served as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator) as well as Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.

Here are the games, listed in chronological order. All statistics provided by the team; NFL official statistics may vary:  

1) Sept. 1, 1996: Lewis’ professional debut
Lewis’ stat line: nine tackles and an interception in the Ravens’ 19-14 win over Oakland, a performance for which Lewis earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

Background: The game marked the return of the NFL to Baltimore after a 12-year absence. Maxie Baughan, in his first season coaching the Ravens’ linebackers after coaching the Buccaneers’ linebackers for four seasons, remembers the young Lewis fondly:

"We knew he could do some of the unusual things a linebacker does, and he proved it that day. (Lewis) could run underneath a block, whereas most players can’t do that, because they would (end up) behind the ballcarrier. That was one of the things that stood out more than anything about him. Plus, we knew he could take coaching.

"His total package, being Defensive Player of the Week (in his debut) and the interception, eight or nine solo tackles, that tells you have a darn good football player. His play was not a surprise to me, and his play since then wasn’t a surprise. I felt when I went down and worked him (at Miami, Fla.) that he could be what he was today.

"Only two teams were there (at the workout at Miami) — the Cardinals and the Ravens. In fact, he missed his plane. He was up in Lakeland, I guess, where he lived. We had to wait like three hours. … My wife was still in Tampa, and she went down there with me. It was a special workout. In fact, my wife said, 'I hope he’s worth this three-hour wait.' And I said, ‘He is.' ”

2) Sept. 14, 1997: Ravens tip Giants 24-23 as Lewis has career day
Stat line: 25 tackles, two passes defensed; earned PFW Defensive Player of the Week honors.

Background: By 1997, the Ravens had assembled the makings of an excellent front seven led by Lewis, who was improving by leaps and bounds in his second NFL season. Giants head coach Jim Fassel, then in his first season on the job, had this to say of Lewis:

"He’s got the rare combination. He’s got the tremendous athletic talent, but also the tremendous competitiveness. … It’s a rare, rare cat.

"They covered him up, and when they cover up your middle linebacker, he’s got to make plays. And he made them.”  
3) Jan. 7, 2001: Ravens beat Titans 24-10 in AFC divisional playoffs
Stat line: 12 tackles, one interception (Lewis’ legendary steal of the ball from Titans RB Eddie George, which he returned 50 yards for a touchdown, giving Baltimore a 17-10 fourth-quarter lead).

Background: The Ravens and Titans split a pair of games in regular-season play before meeting a third time in the postseason in one of the more memorable matchups in divisional-round history.

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, then the club’s vice president of player personnel, drafted Lewis with the No. 27 pick in the 1996 draft. Here’s his recollection of one of Lewis’ greatest games: 

"I think you picked the game that has the one play in my mind. 

"We had played Tennessee a lot. The ability to control Eddie George was going to be the key to the game, as well as (Steve) McNair breaking out of the picket. Ray inserted himself into a position where every time Eddie got the ball, he was part of the tackle. And when Steve would break out of the pocket, he was there.

"They had converted some first downs in years past by dropping the ball off to Eddie George. … Ray willed himself to that interception. He was not going to be denied. It was a play that we needed to be made to win the game, and he willed himself to make the play.

4) Jan. 28, 2001: Ravens rout Giants 34-7 in Super Bowl XXXV
Lewis’ stat line: 11 tackles, four passes defended, game MVP honors.

Background: Less than a year after he was arrested and charged with murder in an incident that occurred hours after Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta, Lewis led the Ravens to victory in Tampa. The murder charges were dropped, and Lewis eventually pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, but the controversy followed the Ravens into their biggest game in franchise history.

Former Ravens head coach Brian Billick, in a memorable press conference on Super Bowl Media Day, staunchly defended Lewis and criticized the media for continuing to bring up the controversy. “As much as some of you want to, we are not going to retry that,” Billick said famously. “It's inappropriate, and you're not qualified.”

Billick, now an analyst for Fox, said the repeated recounting of the Lewis incident served to create an “us-against-the-world mentality.” He also noted that Lewis, known for his legendary intensity, took it to another level before the Super Bowl. “Ray was as driven and as focused as any player I’ve ever been around,” Billick said.

Fassel recalled the difficulty of preparing for Lewis and the Ravens’ defense — and how Lewis was one step ahead that entire game:

"I had talked to a couple of coaches, and the one thing they told me is, ‘They are faster than they look on tape.’ And I said, ‘Wait a second, they are fast on tape!’  

"He’d drop into zone coverage, and we couldn’t get anyone to run away from him. We’d throw the ball, and he’d be hitting them as the ball got there."

Billick remembered a defense for the ages playing with incredible confidence:

"They knew what New York was going to do before New York did. You knew they weren’t going to be able to run. It was recognition and anticipation. Here they were in a Super Bowl, and they wanted the shutout, and they would have got if it wasn’t for the kickoff return (by the Giants' Ron Dixon)."

5) Jan. 3, 2004: Titans tip Ravens 20-17 on last-minute field goal in AFC wild-card round
Stat line: 18 tackles (then a team postseason record — one he later broke) in the final game of a season in which he earned league Defensive MVP honors for a second time.

Background: Less than two years after the Ravens turned over much of the roster because of salary-cap concerns, they were back in the playoffs. Rex Ryan, then the club’s DL coach, recalled the club’s defensive strategy vs. Tennessee:

"We played a lot of straight, odd defense — just 3-4 defense — and it was more quarters coverage. Basically he was having to two-gap guards that game, but he did it, and he was still an awesome player. He was making plays everywhere. He tried to will us to victory, but they got us in the last (minute)."