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Ray Lewis' heroic effort pays off; Robert Griffin III's does not

Editor's Note: On Sunday, NFL Network reporter Jeff Darlington covered the Baltimore Ravens' 24-9 win over the Indianapolis Colts at M&T Bank Stadium before driving south to FedExField, arriving in time to cover the second half of the Seattle Seahawks' 24-14 win over the Washington Redskins. He spent time in the locker rooms of the Ravens and Redskins after each respective game.

BALTIMORE and LANDOVER, Md. -- His cleats still glued to his feet, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis gobbled down the final bite of a banana as he sat in front of his locker at M&T Bank Stadium before beckoning a team employee over to him.

Lewis' eyes widened, as he was clearly looking to cut to the point: The 17-year veteran was charged up, undaunted by a triceps injury that's still healing after its tear in October, wanting only to get his iPad updated with scouting footage of his next opponent.

"I need you to download Denver's last game!" Lewis said, moments after recording a team-high 13 tackles in a 24-9 wild-card win over the Colts. "I need to start watching that tonight!"

Thirty-three miles southwest of Baltimore and five hours after Lewis was looking forward to his short-term future, Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was wondering about his own.

On NFL Network
NFL Replay will re-air the Baltimore Ravens' 24-9 victory over the Indianapolis Colts from Wild Card Weekend on Wednesday, Jan. 9 at 9 p.m. ET.

In the dark underbelly of FedExField, Griffin stood with his fiancée beside a black Chevrolet Tahoe, wearing suit pants and a dress shirt with a sharp tailored vest, expecting to head to the hospital for an MRI. As Griffin looked at her, saying very little, he lifted his injured right knee toward his chest, bending his leg and straightening it, investigating the ligaments with his fingers.

"Honestly, it's up in the air for me right now," Griffin had said about his knee just a few minutes earlier, in the immediate wake of a 24-14 loss to the Seahawks. "No matter what it is, our season's over, and I've got to make sure I get back healthy."

Two men on opposite ends of their careers, two stars of their sport beloved by their fan bases in nearby cities, each did something of immeasurable toughness Sunday. They fought through the pain. They grinded through the hurt.

But when this day was over, as eight hours of football ended with the Ravens and Seahawks advancing into the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, one heroic effort paid off. Another did not.

The questions, of course, will now linger for days. Not for Lewis, who moves on for at least one more week in the final postseason of his career. But for Griffin, who, at the start of his own career, will be at the heart of a controversy involving one simple question among many: Why was he still in the game Sunday when he was clearly hurt?

"I talked to Robert, and he said to me, 'Coach, there's a difference between being injured and hurt,' " Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. "He said, 'I can guarantee I'm hurt right now, but give me a chance to win this football game because I guarantee I'm not injured.'

"That was enough for me."

On NFL Network
NFL Replay will re-air the Seattle Seahawks' 24-14 win over the Washington Redskins from Wild Card Weekend on Tuesday, Jan. 8 at 8 p.m. ET.

In the second half of Sunday's game, though, Griffin's toughness caught up to him. He twisted his knee to a cringe-worthy degree, forcing him out of the game in a strange and surreal end to one of the greatest rookie campaigns in NFL history.

Sunday was a day worth celebrating for many people, including the Seahawks, whose come-from-behind win was fueled by another bold performance from rookie quarterback Russell Wilson. But it was also a day -- and a weekend -- that now would be remembered far more for the aggravated injury suffered by a franchise quarterback, and the question of if he ever really belonged in the game.

Underneath his pads Sunday, in Lewis' final home game at M&T Bank Stadium, the linebacker known for his overwhelming inspiration had a Bible verse (Psalms 91), written on the front of a sleeveless shirt.

The verse is known as the Soldier's Prayer. It is intended to inspire toughness through faith during troubled times. It is toughness, of course, that is so often cheered in this sport, made clear by the raucous ovations Lewis received after returning from injury to play a few final games for his team and his city.

"Today was about me giving everything that I had, showing people that no matter the circumstances that you may be going through, just push through it," Lewis said.

Just push through it, he said. No matter what. This is the culture ingrained in the minds of players from the moment they enter the NFL, and very often, from the moment they begin playing organized sports.

We cheer athletes who play through the pain, just as we surely would have bestowed Griffin with compliments about his courage had he led the Redskins to victory on his badly hobbled leg. And we criticize athletes who don't, just as critics crushed Jay Cutler in the 2010 NFC Championship Game when he stood on the sideline, seemingly healthy enough to play on what was nonetheless a hurt knee, while his team's season ended one game shy of the Super Bowl.

"I think I did put myself at more risk by being out there," Griffin said. "But every time you step on the football field, you're putting your life, your career and every single ligament in jeopardy. That's just the approach I had to take towards it. My teammates needed me out there, so I was out there."

Shanahan said Griffin was cleared by doctors to play on Sunday, even after RG3 briefly left the game when he felt it buckle on a running play. And Griffin wanted to play, even though he clearly wasn't as effective out of the read-option package.

Debate: RG3's injury mishandled?

Should Mike Shanahan have pulled Robert Griffin III from Sunday's high-stakes playoff game earlier than he did? **More ...**

In retrospect, Redskins fans will now be left to wonder if a healthy Kirk Cousins would have been better than a hobbled Griffin when Washington still controlled the momentum of the game. But that's not the heart of this debate.

Do you think Lewis was coming out of Sunday's game, even if he hadn't been as effective as he turned out to be? Lewis didn't pull himself -- and Ravens coach John Harbaugh didn't pull him, either -- when the linebacker became more of a liability than an asset in the early portion of this season, and he wasn't about to do it now.

After Sunday's game, Ravens teammates said Lewis' toughness was inspiring, that it fueled them to victory.

"It brought a lot of energy to the team," linebacker Courtney Upshaw said. "We wanted to make sure we at least got that first win for Ray, making this return at the end of his career."

But when does toughness become a liability, not as much to the team as it does to the player? And when it does, who should be responsible for keeping the player out of the game?

Was Griffin at fault for not recognizing his own ways? Does this fall on Shanahan, for not assuming the possibility for greater damage to his franchise quarterback's knee when everyone watching could clearly see it was vulnerable?

Or does this also fall on the culture of this sport, which celebrates toughness and criticizes anything less? Surely, nobody would have called Griffin a coward had he come out of the game sooner, but the line between weak and strong is very thin in the NFL. Just ask Cutler.

Although Shanahan definitely will take the brunt of the blame if Griffin's MRI reveals a serious injury, it is instead more likely a combination of many faults.

"It's a very tough decision," Shanahan said. "You have to go with your gut, and I did. I'm not saying my gut is always right, but I've been there before. I'll probably second-guess myself when you look at it different: Should I have done it earlier?"

In Baltimore, following the Ravens' triumph, the stadium remained nearly a third full as Lewis finished several postgame interviews. When Lewis noticed how many fans were still around, he did a victory lap to raucous cheers.

This city was cheering his career, applauding his toughness, appreciating his contributions. Maybe someday, more than a decade from now, fans will cheer just like this at FedExField for Griffin's own career, his own toughness, his own contributions.

On Sunday, though, they could only cringe. They could only watch with sunken hearts as Griffin, seated alone on the team's bench, closed his eyes, spoke a few words and made the sign of the cross.

Two men on opposite ends of their careers, two stars of their sport beloved by their fan bases in nearby cities, each did something of immeasurable toughness Sunday. They fought through the pain. They grinded through the hurt.

Was it worth it? Strangely and perhaps sadly, it likely depends on one resounding question: Which stadium were you in?

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington.

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