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Lewis hopes message doesn't ring hollow; four things to watch

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The ring itself means everything to Ray Lewis, particularly in light of everything going on around the iconic linebacker back in 2000.

About a month ago, before the first of the Ravens' two games against Cincinnati, Lewis pulled it out. There was a point to be made about the composition of his team's roster, and the shelf life of every man on it.

"We're after one thing," Lewis told me. "It ain't no secret. Every team is after the same thing. But when you're on a team like this, with so much young talent, the harsh reality is only one person has a ring. And I told them, 'There are certain things you gotta give up to get this.' It's not hard to block out everything that may be a distraction, worry or fear. Whatever it might be, throw it out the way, because if you ever touch it, you'll know what I'm talking about."

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As Lewis' Ravens ride into the playoffs as the least hyped of the bye teams, there is an opportunity there for them. The franchise -- widely revered, under Steve Bisciotti, as a model one, even in a middling market -- has already played in seven postseason games under fourth-year coach John Harbaugh. Sunday will be the eighth, but the first at M&T Bank Stadium.

At 36, Lewis is after only one thing. Going 12-4 and earning a bye isn't it.

Amazingly enough, he's only been in this position once before, with a first-round bye, and it ended in a 15-6 defeat to the eventual Super Bowl champion Colts in 2006. Considering how highly regarded the program built by Ozzie Newsome has been, that's an example of how difficult it is to land one of those four spots. It's also why Lewis is making sure his teammates know what happened the last time.

In his words, "We had everything, and we gave Peyton Manning five field goals. Who loses that game? It just shows you how hard it is to get back to this point again. It's hard."

Terrell Suggs was just 24 then, having just won his second division title in four years as a pro, and thinking for good reason that there would be plenty more home playoff games to come.

"Peyton Manning had a (39.6) passer rating, he threw two picks, we dropped two picks, never got in the end zone, and we still lost," Suggs explained. "We had a time where we were on the goal line and we threw the ball three straight times, threw an interception on the third one and didn't score. … You just have to take advantage of the opportunity. You can't take anything for granted."

Brian Billick coached that team, Rex Ryan was its defensive coordinator and Steve McNair its quarterback. Suggs, Lewis, Ed Reed, and Jarret Johnson were vets on that team, and Haloti Ngata and Sam Koch were rookies. The other 46 spots on the roster have turned over.

Both Suggs and Lewis think their shot at it is even better this year, because both -- and maybe they have to say this -- expressed their belief that this is the best Ravens team either has seen.

"It's definitely the best," Suggs said. "The maturity and leadership we have on offense, we've never really had that much leadership and that many guys playing at a high level over there since I've been here."

Lewis added, "You have to understand, in 2000, we didn't know we were that good. It was just, 'Play. Play.' And 'The journey. The journey. The journey.' And whatever the offensive struggle was, defensively, we didn't know we were gonna be that good, we didn't know we would be able to handle so many of those situations. But when you're talking about just total balance, this is probably the most complete team. It's big because I just want them to understand that you can't waste this opportunity."

That was the idea in putting the ring on display for his teammates. The only goal, for Lewis, is making sure there are 52 other guys wearing one a few weeks down the line.

And with that, let's hit the four things I'll be looking for this weekend …

1) The Flacco effect. Joe Flacco poked fun at the criticism aimed his way Wednesday, but there is validity to it. In seven playoff games, while the fourth-year quarterback may be 4-3, he also hasn't exactly carried the Ravens to victory, averaging just 150 yards per game, with four touchdowns against seven interceptions, a completion percentage of 53.3, and a passer rating above 90 just once. The Ravens' wins have come by 18, 3, 18 and 23 points, with Flacco's one signature moment coming with a 51-yard drive to set up a game-winning field goal against Tennessee his rookie year. And yet, if there's one difference Baltimore would cite between this incarnation of the Ravens, it is stability at Flacco's position. Harbaugh called him a great player the other day. With the Texans' third-ranked run defense, which held Cincinnati to 76 rushing yards last week, chances are Flacco will have a shot to prove it again this weekend, and improve on a spotty playoff record.

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2) Time of possession at Candlestick. On the surface, the Saints run defense actually looks OK, ranking 12th in the NFL. But a closer look shows New Orleans is one of four teams to allow 5.0 yards per carry this season. The reason the overall numbers aren't worse is, in large part, because the offense is building enormous leads and pushing opponents to throw the ball playing from behind. The question you keep hearing on this one -- how is Alex Smith gonna score with Drew Brees? -- is a fallacy. Or at least it can be, if the Niners can control the pace of the game. The Saints already will be taking a cross-country trip and playing on the natural surface at Candlestick. Jim Harbaugh's group can further take its opponent out of its comfort zone by dragging this game into a dark alley. If San Francisco's going to win, count on there being a few 12- and 15-play drives, a time-of-possession edge of somewhere around 35:00-25:00, and Brees and Co. having more limited opportunities than they're accustomed.

3) The turnover battle in New England. In my prep work for GameDay Morning each week, I talk to players from the teams I'm covering and collect keys they've been drilled on for that week's opponent. Whenever you're talking to New England's opponents, it's the same: "You have to be sound, because they're not going to beat themselves." And that can be instructive in analyzing the last meeting between the Broncos and Patriots. The 41-23 final was lopsided, yes. But the 18-point gap can be explained by three second-quarter fumbles that led to 13 New England points, and changed the tone and tenor of that game completely, making a close game one of catch-up for Denver in the second half. To expand the idea, the Patriots lost the turnover battle 8-5 in their three losses, and won it 29-9 in their 13 wins. In 10 games since the Detroit debacle, Tebow has just six picks and has lost just one fumble. Taking care of the ball like that should be Priority No. 1 on Saturday night.

4) Aaron Rodgers' jersey. If it's clean, I'm not sure how great a shot the Giants have. One of the primary benefits of the bye week for the Packers, like with all teams, was getting healthy, and the guys protecting Rodgers certainly have. Green Bay will have tackles Bryan Bulaga and Chad Clifton and guard Josh Sitton on the field at the same time for the first time since Sept. 25, and that's important facing the Giants fearsome front. If those guys can do the job on Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, it's probably curtains for the Giants. I can't help but think back to the summer, when folks were wondering if the Packers would be sharp without having staged "lockout camps" like some other teams. They, of course, were just fine, and not shy about pointing it out to people. You're hearing some of the same "rust" talk now. My guess is, as long as Rodgers' jersey is clean, the Packers will have something else to brag on come late Sunday.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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