Though this isn't his first injury, it's tough to envision the Ravens without Ray Lewis

Ray LewisBaltimore RavensFootballJohn HarbaughNFLNFL DraftBart Scott

At approximately 1 p.m. on Sunday, Ray Lewis might not shimmy his way out of the tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium.

There is a chance a toe injury could sideline Lewis, meaning someone else will have to captain the Ravens’ defense, sing the national anthem, conduct the marching band, sell cotton candy and foam fingers, vacuum the place, and turn off the lights when everyone leaves.

That might be a slight exaggeration of the linebacker’s responsibilities on game day, but Lewis has been the scowling, war-paint-wearing face of everything Baltimore football for the past 16 years.

It’s hard to imagine the Ravens playing without him, but they have done so 30 times in their history. And should a wonky toe sideline Lewis — he will be a game-time decision Sunday — the Ravens will still run out of the tunnel for their critical game against the 6-3 Cincinnati Bengals.

“If he plays, that's going to be great for us,” Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said Friday. “But if he doesn't, we're going to miss him. But I think we'll be fine.”

Lewis was listed as questionable on Friday’s injury report, which by the NFL’s definition means there is a 50/50 chance he will play. Ravens coach John Harbaugh stressed to reporters that you can never rule Lewis out. But he is in danger of missing his first game in more than three years, a streak of 57 straight regular-season games that dates back to the 2008 season opener.

Given the way Lewis hands out hard hits with reckless abandon, his durability — especially in the twilight of his career — is pretty remarkable. While fending off questions of Lewis’ availability on Friday, Harbaugh marveled about the tenacity and toughness of the future Hall of Famer, who the coach says has played with shredded hamstrings and banged out push-ups on the sidelines with a dislocated shoulder to convince the training staff to let him return to active duty.

“That’s Ray Lewis,” Harbaugh said.

But the player Sports Illustrated once hailed as “God’s Linebacker” is mortal. He has twice been put on injured reserve in his career. A shoulder injury limited him to five games in 2002, and he played in six games in the 2005 season before undergoing season-ending surgery to repair a torn hamstring. In five other seasons, Lewis lost games to injury, though it was never more than two.

In those 30 games without Lewis, the Ravens are 14-16. Perhaps it is coincidence, but 2006 is the only season in which Lewis missed at least one game that the Ravens made the playoffs.

The last time Lewis watched from the sidelines in street clothes, Bart Scott and Nick Greisen were the inside linebackers as the Ravens closed the 2007 season with a 27-21 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. If Lewis is inactive Sunday, Brendon Ayanbadejo, Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe — three players who weren’t selected in the NFL draft — will man the middle.

But like Harbaugh said, “Ray is Ray, you know? You can't count Ray out.”

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Ray LewisBaltimore RavensFootballJohn HarbaughNFLNFL DraftBart Scott
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