On Saturday, when Denver hosts Baltimore in an AFC divisional playoff game, Peyton Manning's comeback story meets Ray Lewis' retirement tour.
For one of them, the season will come to a bitter end.
For the other, the story will carry on to the conference title game.
It just so happens that for Lewis to move on in his 17th and final season, he'll have to outmaneuver one of the game's greatest offensive minds.
This is something Lewis understands, especially since he has been one the league's fiercest defensive players for more than a decade.
|Quarterback Peyton Manning #18 and Ray Lewis #52 of the Baltimore Ravens embrace after the Colts defeated the Ravens 15-6 during their AFC Divisional Playoff game on January 13, 2007 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)|
'It's just two people who understand the game very well, and offensively, he understands what things he wants to see, and defensively, we understand what things we don't want him to see,' Lewis said Tuesday. 'That's where the chess match comes in. You give him what he wants? He beats you. You give him what he doesn't want? Then you beat him.
'I think that's the way the game always plays out against us every time we play each other. We're back to one of those classic games again.'
|Vick Ballard #33 of the Indianapolis Colts runs the ball against Ray Lewis #52 of the Baltimore Ravens during the AFC Wild Card Playoff Game at M&T Bank Stadium on January 6, 2013 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)|
Manning already has won once against Baltimore this year, guiding the Broncos to a 34-17 win in Maryland on the way to Denver earning the conference's top seed.
The New Orleans native finished that game 17 of 28 for 204 yards and a touchdown, posting Denver to a 31-3 lead midway through the fourth quarter before the Broncos coasted to the finish.
But Lewis didn't play in that Week 15 game. The future Hall of Fame linebacker was instead on the Ravens' injured reserve list, tagged with a designated to return label back on Oct. 17 nine weeks before Manning was scheduled to come to Baltimore.
This past weekend, in Baltimore's AFC wild card playoff win over Indianapolis Lewis' first game back from tearing his right triceps he finished with a team-high 13 tackles, one tackle for a loss and one pass defensed.
Manning saw the difference he made for the Ravens defense.
'He's an excellent player,' Manning said. 'He's made a huge difference for their team coming back. You could see the energy that he brought to that team on Sunday in their playoff game. He's special. That's all you can say.'
Manning, for one, is expecting a game that's a big different from the regular season. Along with Lewis, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and safety Bernard Pollard didn't play on Dec. 16.
The game was yet another signifier of Manning's return from multiple neck surgeries. For the year, he finished with the second-best quarterback rating at 105.8 and had a 37-to-11 touchdown-to-interceptions ratio after a full year off from the game.
Manning went from being in the playoffs in 2010 to being on the sidelines for an entire season. Yet, while many wondered if Manning was finished after having three surgeries to fix a bulging disc, the quarterback still loved the game. Watching the playoffs in 2011, including seeing his brother Eli win his second Super Bowl, wasn't needed to reaffirm that.
'I really didn't need the year off to reinforce how much I enjoy playing,' Manning said. 'I've always had a real passion for the game and, like I said, I always kind of played every play or game as if it could be your last. I didn't need that year off to remind me of that. Maybe some people do but I knew how much I enjoyed playing while I was playing.'