BALTIMORE -- Ed Reed came out of the postgame prayer circle thinking he could still move all right. Then he stumbled trying to put weight on his left leg, gritting his teeth as he gathered himself.
Moments earlier, Reed's teammates had carried him off the field -- the consequence of Reed leaping to deflect T.J. Yates' last-gasp Hail Mary and landing wrong on that ankle. Hobbled? Maybe. Victorious? Absolutely -- with the latter serving as a healing agent for the former, and the Baltimore Ravens moving on to the AFC Championship Game after a 20-13 win over the Houston Texans.
"It doesn't even matter," Reed said about the injury. "I just gotta heal it up as best I can for next week's game. Just rolled my ankle a little bit."
X-rays in the locker room afterward confirmed it wasn't more than that. And so Reed's quest for his first ring continues.
This is Reed's 10th season in Baltimore. The only reason he's not the face of the defense-first Ravens franchise is because of the transcendence of teammate Ray Lewis.
And yet, he still has an empty spot on his right ring finger that he figured would be filled a long time ago. In 2003, his team won the AFC North and lost at home in the playoffs. In 2006, the Ravens earned a first-round bye and were promptly bounced, again at home, in the divisional round by the Colts. The last three years, Baltimore has managed to win postseason games, but fell short of the ultimate goal each time.
Seeing him postgame -- limping on that ankle, having suffered significant shoulder, hip and neck injuries over the last two years -- it was clear as day how much this opportunity means to him.
"You play and see where it takes you," Reed said, now fixing his suit in the empty Ravens locker room. "We've had special teams, we've been on the brink the last four years. I think about it. You gotta be a special squad to do it, man. And we've got a special squad."
Though there is one thing we can conclude right now: Whispers of Reed's decline as a player were greatly exaggerated. Which is why, when I asked Ravens coach John Harbaugh about his star safety, some emotion spilled over.
"I mean, I could get nasty here -- it's the same guy they were saying two weeks ago couldn't play," Harbaugh said, after talking with Reed in the locker room. "Whatever people want to think out there, they can think what they want. I've told you what I think about Ed Reed. So yeah, it'd be great (to get him a ring)."
Reed helped the Ravens get closer Sunday. He had six tackles, four pass breakups and an acrobatic interception over Andre Johnson in the waning moments that all but sealed the win for Baltimore. When his team needed him to come up big, he did -- as usual -- and the Ravens advanced to the second AFC title game of his career.
Harbaugh was careful in talking about getting Reed a ring during our conversation -- "It's all 53 guys," he said -- but his teammates weren't afraid to broach the topic. They've seen everything Reed's been through physically over the last few years. They've heard him openly talk about retirement. They know how great a player he is, and what a shame it'd be if he didn't eventually win one.
"That's something that me and him talk about all the time," said Bernard Pollard, who starts opposite Reed at safety. "He's a guy who's been playing the game at a high level, he's been well-respected throughout the league, he's done everything possible. He's been to Pro Bowls, he's been Defensive Player of the Year. Now it's time to get him a ring. He needs a ring."
When Reed arrived in Baltimore in April 2002, the Ravens were just 15 months removed from the franchise's lone ring. Reed had long known Lewis -- thanks to the tight-knit community of University of Miami football players, past and present -- but he distinctly remembers their first discussion after the 2002 NFL Draft about what it took to win a title. As far as Reed is concerned, it might as well have happened yesterday. He remembers every word.
"He was constantly talking to me -- 'The little things, bro. The little things, bro.' That's all he kept saying to me," Reed said. "He said, 'Work hard and you're gonna be successful as an individual. You know how to play football and if you just keep working hard, football won't change for you. But it's gonna be you doing the little things and helping those around you.' "
Reed continued, "He (Lewis) had a special squad around him. Those guys picked him up through some tough times he was going through. And he just gives it to us now. That's what you look for in a brother. That's what you look for as a leader, to make those around you better."
Three Sundays from now, Reed's hoping the championship equation that Lewis gave him 10 years ago -- to work not only to better yourself, but all those around you -- adds up to his first ring.
"It's gonna be a tough fight," Reed said. "I already know. I know those guys are already scheming, and they're gonna be ready to go."
But he also knows what's around him. And he's confident enough to visualize the possibilities.
"I saw (Tom) Brady and them do it in New Orleans. I went to the Super Bowl, when the Steelers were in Tampa," he explained. "I went when Reggie (Wayne) played in Miami. I watched those guys. That'd be something special, man."
Once again, it's within Reed's grasp. And as his wobbly postgame gait attests, he'll do everything in his power to seize that opportunity this time around.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer