Ravens-Patriots — Tom Brady vs. Ray Lewis — is a cultural war of the highest order.
It’s offense vs. defense. It’s the most valuable offensive player of the new millennium vs. the most valuable defensive player of the new millennium. It’s Brady, Gronkowski and Welker vs. Sugar, Sizzle and Safety. It’s rock ’n’ roll vs. hip-hop.
It’s Bird vs. Magic, Marciano vs. Ali, Jack vs. Tiger, Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils vs. Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels, Spearmint Rhino vs. King of Diamonds, and “Mad Men” vs. “The Wire.”
Oh, man. I really love that “Mad Men” vs. “The Wire” analogy. Gisele’s beau and Bridget Moynahan’s baby’s daddy, Tom Brady, is the skirt-chasing Don Draper. Friend-to-porn star Rob Gronkowski is the irreverent, prostitute-buying Roger Sterling. Wes Welker is the squirrelly Pete Campbell. “The Wire” characters are even easier to identify. Ray “Sugar” Lewis is Avon Barksdale. Ed “Safety” Reed is Stringer Bell. And Terrell “T-Sizzle” Suggs is Wee-Bey.
“The Wire” is my religion. But I really enjoy “Mad Men.” Magic Johnson is my all-time favorite athlete. But I’m an Indiana native who reveres Larry Bird. Give me Ali and Tiger. But I completely get why some people prefer Marciano and Nicklaus. Well, I did root for Duke over UNLV, and I’d give Rhino a slight edge over KOD based on decor, parking ease and tattoos.
Look, we can tip-toe around it, ignore the big beautiful elephant in the room, or we can embrace the fact that Sunday’s AFC Championship contest is soaked in the white-black racial component that has driven American sports passion at least since Jack Johnson whipped James J. Jeffries.
The beauty of Ravens-Patriots is this isn’t Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney. No. Ravens-Patriots features two highly competitive, worthy opponents with genuine, mutual respect who just happen to be led by stars of opposite race. This is vintage, 1980s Celtics-Lakers.
This is Bird vs. Magic. And don’t get it twisted. Bird and Magic didn’t like each other in the 1980s. They chased the same prize. They wanted to be regarded as the greatest player of their era, if not of all time.
The Ravens and the Patriots don’t like each other. There’s a major difference between respect and affinity. The Ravens like and respect their AFC North rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Patriots and Brady like and respect the Colts and Peyton Manning.
Despite the non-inflammatory words coming out of the Baltimore locker room this week, the Ravens still don’t like Tom Brady and still believe the league and referees favor the Patriots. The Ravens are winless against the Patriots in the regular season, thanks in large part to highly questionable, Patriot-friendly officiating in 2007 and 2009.
In the minds of the Ravens, the Patriots are the sneaky little suburban team that is celebrated for winning three titles despite bending the rules (Spygate).
There’s animus fueling the Baltimore locker room. It’s mixed with jealousy and pride and ego. Brady and Lewis want to define this era. The pass-happy rules have been stacked in Brady’s favor. Lewis knows this and, therefore, he knows what he has accomplished as a defender is even more impressive.
If he can add a second Super Bowl title to his resume, he’ll stake a strong claim as the NFL’s greatest defensive player of all time. A fourth Super Bowl ring would put Brady on the same level as Joe Montana and distance Brady from Peyton Manning.
The stakes are high this Sunday.
Brady leads an offense built in his image. In a league that is predominantly black, Brady directs a high-flying offense that is predominantly white and relies on a deep cast of white playmakers.
Lewis leads a defense built in his brash image. Nine of the 11 Ravens defenders are African-American. To compensate for Baltimore’s inconsistent offense, Lewis’ defense not only takes risks to create turnovers, they take even more risks trying to convert those turnovers into instant points.
The cliche is “styles make fights.” This is the ultimate clash of styles and football cultures. This is Magic’s “Showtime” Lakers racing with the basketball for 94 feet vs. Larry Bird’s Celtics brutalizing an opponent on the defensive end with elbows and cheap shots and demoralizing the same opponent on the other end with precise halfcourt sets.
Brady vs. Lewis. This is better and more significant than Brady vs. Manning. The QB duels are a reality-TV creation, a byproduct of rules being influenced to keep our attention. Soon, the TV networks will be telling you that Brees vs. Rodgers is better than Brady vs. Manning.
On the basketball court, we may never see anything as compelling as Bird vs. Magic again. And this is likely our first and only shot at seeing Brady vs. Lewis on the biggest stage they can share. Enjoy.
I love Tom Brady. Other than John Elway, he’s the quarterback I respect the most. But I’ll be rooting for Avon, Stringer and Wee-Bey. “The Wire” is my religion.