DENVER — Sometime after the season is over, Peyton Manning will sit down with Ray Lewis and congratulate him on a job well done.
In Lewis' 17-year career, he has redefined his position and cemented himself as one of the most fearsome players in the game.
What Manning hopes to avoid is congratulating Lewis on winning a second Super Bowl.
In what could be the last game for Baltimore's seven-time first-team All-Pro linebacker, who is retiring after this season, the Broncos and Ravens meet today in the AFC division playoffs. The game has two NFL icons, each three wins from a second championship.
"He's an excellent player," said Manning, a five-time first-team All-Pro who'd rather share his biggest praise for Lewis with the man than the media. "He's special. That's all you can say."
Special as Lewis may be, Manning has won his past nine games against the Ravens.
Befitting a player who thinks about Super Bowls above all else, only one of the defeats really sticks with Lewis: a 15-6 loss to the Colts in the 2006 division playoffs. Indianapolis then won the Super Bowl.
"We gave up five field goals to him, and they went on to win the Super Bowl," said the inside linebacker, who returned from injury last weekend and had 13 tackles in a 24-9 win against the Colts. "That hurts to lose to somebody you thought you had beat and then they go on to win the Super Bowl."
But while Lewis may carry the baggage from the game six years ago, the meeting between these teams four weeks ago in Baltimore holds more weight in the locker rooms this week.
Denver won 34-17, though it really wasn't that close. Manning threw for only 204 yards, but Knowshon Moreno rushed for 115 as the Broncos built a 31-3 lead. The Ravens were without Lewis that day.
It was an important part of Denver's 11-game winning streak, compiled mostly against teams with losing records. For Baltimore, it was a humbling comedown but one for which the Ravens have a variety of explanations: Lewis and several others were out of the lineup, Broncos receivers pushed off too much, etc.
The Broncos have not been big on bravado, and they're not changing now.
"That was then, and we're getting ready for now," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "Each week we start fresh and talk to our guys about the things that they're good at, the things we need to be able to limit."
Manning, bouncing back after four neck surgeries, threw for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns in the regular season. If he does his job today, he will bring Lewis' career to an end with only one Super Bowl title.
Lewis insists his team is ready.
"Arguably, they are the best team in football," he said. "If that's what it is, then let's line up and let's be who we are, and let's get ready to play the best team in football."