Chances are, on Sunday, Arian Foster and Ray Lewis will meet in the hole about a dozen times. And the result of those meetings could go a long way toward determining whether Houston or Baltimore goes to Foxboro or hosts Denver in the AFC title game.
What's certain is that when all's said and done, Lewis and Foster will warmly greet one another and try and decide the next time the 25-year-old Texan and 36-year-old Raven can meet outside the tackle box. Let Foster explain.
"We played them last year, and there was a play in the second quarter when he just came up to me and said, 'I love the way you play the game.' And it just kind of took me by surprise. So I just was like, 'Likewise, sir,'" explained Foster, his back stiffening to mock how serious -- and flattered -- he was. "And he said, 'Let's exchange numbers after the game.' So we exchanged them, and we texted randomly through the rest of the season."
That's how Foster became one of the legion of young players who count Lewis as a guiding influence in a brutally cutthroat business. The Texans tailback continues to text with Lewis, who spends considerable time trying to pay it forward through his network of the NFL's young.
In 29 games over the past two seasons, Foster has rushed for 2,840 yards and 26 touchdowns as the bell cow Gary Kubiak had searched high and low for since arriving in Houston in 2006. Lewis' accomplishments, of course, dwarf those, but Foster praises Lewis for giving others the best roadmap he can to achieve what he has.
"He feels a responsibility and an obligation to help younger players know how this league is operated and how to carry yourself to be the most successful person you can be," Foster said. "And I think that's what a lot of older heads should do. Derrick Ward when he first got to this team, it's my first year starting, and he tells me you should be getting two, three massages a week, and here's how to eat right, and you should be doing this and this. He did that for me, and that's what Ray tries to do on a wider scale."
Lewis and Foster grew closer at last year's Pro Bowl, when Foster introduced the legend to his family, and Lewis engaged Foster's mother in conversation to gain more insight into his roundabout path to NFL stardom. Also in Hawaii, Foster says he and Lewis "sat up and talked for a long time." And six months later, the two reconnected at the ESPYs in Los Angeles, with another long conversation taking place.
Asked what they talk about, Foster smiles and says, "Ray's deep, man. ... We've talked about family situations to football to politics. He's a well-versed guy and I am too. I enjoy our conversations."
Again, Foster's far from alone. Younger guys in the NFL have flocked to Lewis en masse.
That doesn't mean Foster doesn't want to beat Lewis and the Ravens on Sunday. But he'll also be thanking Lewis afterward for all he's done.
"He's just a really good mentor," Foster said. "Teaching me things about the game, teaching me how to be a pro, teaching me mindset and how I need to be thinking and getting me to understand this is still a business. Little things like that, that just kind of age you as you become a professional athlete. ... He tries to take things he learned the hard way, and give us those jewels so we can give them to someone else down the line."
Foster, like most of the others I'm sure, plans to pass on what he's learned from Lewis as he continues his own remarkable journey. The NFL, in turn, is a better place. And Lewis deserves credit for that.
Albert Breer went 2-2 with his wild-card predictions. How will he fare in the divisional round? His picks are below, with home teams listed second: