OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The snapshots of the Ravens locker room in the moments after last season’s AFC Championship game are still vivid.
The game, a 23-20 loss to the Patriots, seemed to take a pound of flesh from everyone.
Billy Cundiff, the kicker who hadn’t missed a field goal attempt in the fourth quarter all season, stood stone-faced but earnest, explaining how he came up empty on a 32-yarder that would have sent the game to overtime.
Quarterback Joe Flacco had nothing but his numbers (22 of 36, 306 yards, two touchdowns) as a cruel consolation prize. He had to swallow a loss even though he was a dropped pass from leading the Ravens to the Super Bowl and silencing his critics, both inside and outside his own locker room.
One of those critics was Ed Reed, the future Hall of Fame safety who has done almost everything except go to a Super Bowl. He left the locker room shaking his head, muttering the words to Teddy Pendergrass’s “Love TKO.”
Then there was linebacker Terrell Suggs, who in his tone and his dress — black fedora, black scarf, black overcoat — was altogether funereal, vowing to never rest until he reached the Super Bowl.
Ray Lewis didn’t wear the loss the same way.
He could have. There were suspicions, justifiable ones, that after 16 seasons in the league, this could have been Lewis’s last game, and it was by far his greatest chance of returning to the Super Bowl.
But with the locker room at its lowest, Lewis stood in the middle and lifted it up.
“God has never made one mistake,” he said. “So it ain’t about one play. It ain’t about nothing. This year, we did what we were supposed to do. We fought as a team.
“Don’t ever drop your head after a loss, dawg, because it’s too much pain outside of this that people are really going through. This right here makes us stronger.
“Let’s understand who we are as a team. Let’s understand who we are as men, and let’s make somebody smile when we walk out of here. We have an opportunity to keep going.”
His words rang out because of everything behind them. The life experiences, the football work, the personal tragedy and controversy, the success, the journey.
“It’s so many things that Ray’s gone through in his life,” said Ravens safety Bernard Pollard. “He’s able to put that in a speech. In a short, short speech. It’s honestly a blessing to be able to hear what somebody’s gone through, to try to understand.
“We’re never going to be able to understand because we didn’t go through it, but we can try to put ourselves in that position or try to take it in as much as we can.
“He has a lot to say. He’s seen so much. It’s just inspirational.”
Lewis made it clear as soon as that game was behind him that he would return this year for his 17th season. That season continues Sunday night for the 1-1 Ravens when they face the Patriots again, this time in Baltimore.
Lewis doesn’t look at last year as an opportunity squandered. He looks at this season as an opportunity gained.
“Whoever’s year it was, it was,” Lewis said. “I’ve been there before to realize, whether it was Oakland, who was supposed to be the best our year, Tennessee was supposed to be the best. That year wasn’t their year. That year was our year.
“You don’t hold onto nothing. Win, lose, or draw, you let it go and you move on. This year, we have a totally different makeup as a team. We have a totally different outlook on what we’re trying to do as a team. So we are looking at this game as a totally different game.”
Lewis is 37, but in Ravens years, he seems almost ageless. He is the only original Raven left. They made him the second pick in franchise history, and over the course of 224 games, the team’s defense has been carved in his image — intense, frightening, proud.
The only NFL linebacker to ever play past 40 years old was Junior Seau with the Patriots in 2009, but teammates wouldn’t be surprised if Lewis tested the limits.
He came into the season even more committed.
Typically listed at 250 to 260 pounds, he dropped down to 235, paying special attention to his diet, because he believed it would help him be more mobile.
He opened the season with a machine-like 14 tackles against Cincinnati, sending a message that he was far from finished.
“When you see the way that Ray works and the way Ray prepares, he’s the definition of a professional,” said linebacker Jameel McClain. “Day in and day out, he brings his all, 24/7, leaves nothing on the table.
“So for me to sit back and ask, ‘How does he do it?’ would mean I’m shocked. I see how he works, I know his pedigree. I know what he is. It’s just normal. It’s expected. I think he can go another five more years, if you ask me.”
What has set Lewis apart to new defensive coordinator Dean Pees is that even though Lewis has the experience and the résumé of a Hall of Famer, he takes the approach of a rookie.
Everything is urgent.
“He approaches every year and every game and every week like he is a young guy in a young part of his career,” Pees said. “He has never gotten to the point [of slowing down], which a lot of the great ones don’t, and he is a great one.
“He approaches every day like, ‘This is important.’ It’s, ‘I’m not taking anything for granted.’
“He sits there in the room, and he looks like a rookie back there writing down notes, watching film, coming in and telling you things that you may or may not have seen even as a coach.
“He studies. It’s important to him, and he studies.
“There are a lot of guys, sometimes after certain years, they go, ‘I kind of have all the answers.’ He is not like that. That is the thing that I think a lot of people may not see.
“He is a student of the game. Besides being a good player physically and emotionally, he is a great player mentally.”
How much time he has left is uncertain.
“This city is Ray,” Pollard said. “Ray is a legend. Ray is truly going to go down as one of the best to play this game, and that’s just because of that thing that’s on the left side of his chest, and that’s his heart.
“The heart he has, man, so many people would have gave it up a long time ago. To go through some of the things he’s went through, man, people wouldn’t have been able to go through that. So I think that’s just a testament of what he’s gone through and what he believes in.”