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Veterans, not rookies, key to playoff success

In a photo taken with a fisheye lens, Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis celebrates after the Ravens beat the Denver Broncos 38-35 in overtime of an AFC divisional playoff NFL football game, Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

In a photo taken with a fisheye lens, Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis celebrates after the Ravens beat the Denver Broncos 38-35 in overtime of an AFC divisional playoff NFL football game, Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Ray Lewis remembers when he was a twentysomething kid on the Baltimore Ravens en route to a Super Bowl title.Back then, a dozen years ago, he was the one paying attention to the advice offered, and example set, by a pair of Hall-of-Famers-to-be in their 30s: tight end Shannon Sharpe and safety Rod Woodson.

"Shannon, because he had done it already," Lewis recalled this week. "Rod, because he hadn't done it. ... To look in his eyes, to know how he wanted to touch that Lombardi (Trophy) together, and then to listen to Shannon tell him how calm you had to be and how prepared you had to be."

Nowadays, the 37-year-old Lewis is the elder statesman trying to show the younger Ravens the way to a title before he retires at season's end. In what has been the Year of the Rookie in the NFL, Lewis joins New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez and San Francisco 49ers receiver Randy Moss -- all at least 35, all veterans of at least 13 pro seasons -- as old guys taking center stage in Sunday's conference championship games.

That quartet of famous faces is hardly alone. These are some veteran-laden clubs still in contention for the Super Bowl: According to STATS, the Ravens, Falcons and 49ers were three of the six oldest teams in the league based on average age of Week 17 rosters, all right around 27-1/2 years old. The Patriots are a bit younger, STATS said, ranking 18th of 32 teams with an average age of about 26 years, 8 months.

On the Ravens, for example, 17th-year man Lewis is merely one of nine players with 10 or more NFL seasons to his credit, a group of graybeards that includes safety Ed Reed, linebacker Terrell Suggs, receiver Anquan Boldin and offensive linemen Matt Birk and Bryant McKinnie. Lewis, Reed, Birk and McKinnie all were born in the 1970s.

"You can't coach experience, game experience. Those guys are going to lead us," sixth-year Ravens guard Marshal Yanda said. "It's great to have guys who have been around for a long time and been through it, and also to say to some of the young guys, `Hey, this doesn't come around very often.' Around here, some young guys might take it for granted; it's the fifth straight year we've been in the playoffs. So sometimes you need to tell the young guys, 'Hey, this isn't normal. Take advantage of your opportunities."'

Gonzalez knows that as well as anyone.

He's 36, playing in his 16th season, ranks second in NFL history with more than 1,200 catches -- and never had won a single playoff game until last weekend. Gonzalez cried for joy after Atlanta's 30-28 victory over Seattle, which he helped make possible with a leaping 1-yard touchdown grab and a 19-yard catch that set up the go-ahead field goal in the final minute.

While Lewis definitively declared that these playoffs will be his "last ride" before retirement, Gonzalez left himself a bit of wiggle room by stating last summer that he was "about 95 percent sure" the current season would be his final one.

"He may not be as fast as he used to be," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said, "but he's really crafty and knows how to get open."