THEY HEAR the knocking, and with each game and each season it grows louder and more insistent. The Ravens won at home on Sunday, beating Houston 20--13 to advance to their second AFC Championship Game in four years. But even as they smiled the smiles of players one game away from the Super Bowl, their words betrayed an actuarial anxiety.
"I'm getting old," said safety Ed Reed, 33, who made the eighth postseason interception of his 10-year career late in the fourth quarter and then rolled his left ankle while defending a Hail Mary on the Texans' last snap of the game. "I understand it. One day it won't be me up here. It'll be another safety in Baltimore."
"I can't stop working until whenever is whenever, and I don't know when that's going to be," said middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who is now 36.
"The window's closing," said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, a nine-year veteran at 29. "That need to get it done is greater than ever."
The trio's sense of urgency was only heightened by the young Texans, who played like the Ravens used to. For most of the 16 years since the franchise (and Lewis) arrived in Baltimore, the team's defensive signature has been its brutal control of the line of scrimmage. Since 2003, the Ravens have finished lower than ninth in fewest yards allowed just once, and they had never permitted a back to rush for 100 yards in a playoff game—until Sunday, when Houston tailback Arian Foster rambled for 132. Baltimore hit the Texans' skittish rookie quarterback, T.J. Yates, just twice, and for only the second time went sackless in a postseason game. Meanwhile a pair of Texans rookies, defensive end J.J. Watt and linebacker Brooks Reed, combined for five sacks and 20 tackles, four for losses.
Were it not for a series of Houston miscues—three forced throws by Yates that resulted in picks, and Jacoby Jones's mishandling of a first-quarter punt, which gave Baltimore the ball inside the Houston three—the outmuscled Ravens would be pondering their age even more grimly. Said coach John Harbaugh of his team's escape, "We're humbled."
Reed, Lewis and Suggs are the faces of Baltimore's defense, but they're not the only members of the unit running out of Super Bowl chances. Jarret Johnson, the strongside linebacker, learned of life's fleetingness earlier than most. He was nearly eight when his father, Ludwig, took his fishing boat out into the waters surrounding Cedar Key, Fla., and did not come back. His body was never found. Johnson went on to become a two-time captain at Alabama, then a fourth-round pick by Baltimore in 2003, and then, after a four-year apprenticeship under Adalius Thomas, the steadiest member of the Ravens' D. He has started every game since '07—his streak of 80 straight is a franchise record—and is, says defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, "the glue to this whole thing. He knows this scheme inside and out, he's a good mentor, tough as nails. You ask the guys in our room, Who are you going to take with you to a bar fight? The first one they're going to say is Double-J."
The 6'2", 265-pound Johnson's barroom mettle hasn't been tested lately. ("I've been in a few—not one in a while, thank God—but I'd just throw straight haymakers," he says.) It has also been years since teammates called him the Squirrel, because of his youthful propensity for clambering on top of piles. Johnson's 30th birthday was in August, and with it came a more strategic deployment of his skills, which has often meant substituting for him on third downs. "This is the first year he's ever come out of the game, really," says Pagano. "He was standing next to me in training camp, watching our younger guys, and he said, 'We gotta get these guys on the field.' I said, 'You know what that means?'"
Johnson knew—and now that they're on the field more, those younger players must start emulating their established teammates if Baltimore is to reach its first Super Bowl since the 2000 season. (Lewis is the only current member of the D who was on that team.) "I tell young guys on this defense, If you're a good player, you're never going to be heard of, because we don't have good players, we have great players," says Johnson. "We have four potential Hall of Famers."
Along with Lewis, Reed and Suggs, Johnson envisions enshrinement for tackle Haloti Ngata, a two-time All-Pro at 27. However, aside from Ngata and Lardarius Webb, the 26-year-old cornerback who intercepted Yates twice, none of the other youngsters distinguished themselves in 30 snaps on Sunday. Particularly disappointing were linebacker Jameel McClain, 26, who trailed only Lewis in regular-season tackles with 84 but had just two against the Texans, and pass rushers Paul Kruger, 25, and Pernell McPhee, 23, who combined for 11 regular-season sacks but failed to make a single tackle on Sunday.
"Everyone out here has to appreciate when great warriors fight to the end," Lewis said before leaving the locker room to engage in his next great battle—a game of Monopoly with some of his six children. ("I don't let them win in nothing," he said.) Lewis laughed at suggestions that he might soon retire, saying he would play next season "unless the skies spread and God himself comes down."
This Sunday the Ravens will face perhaps the NFL's closest thing to a deity: Tom Brady, who runs an offense good enough to make even great NFL warriors blanch. The game-but-hobbled Reed was asked how the defense will have to perform against New England. "A lot better than today, man," the safety said. "A lot better than today."
CONTENDERS NEVERMORE? Reed (left, making a pick on Sunday) and Suggs (inset, with Johnson) will need a boost from Baltimore's younger defenders against the Patriots.