OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Ray Lewis remembers when he was a twenty-something 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 27½ 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 game-winning 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."
San Francisco safety Donte Whitner's assessment?
"He's a genetic freak," Whitner said. "He's a guy who can still stretch you deep. He can still catch the intermediate. Last week, he had one of the best catches by a tight end in the National Football League in the back of the end zone. He can still make all the plays. You got to believe if he's 95 percent saying he's going to retire, he really wants to get this game and get a Super Bowl. We have to understand that."
Moss, who turns 36 next month, played in the 2008 Super Bowl with Brady and the Patriots, and has nearly 1,000 career catches. But after spending 2010 with three teams and sitting out all of 2011, he's no longer a best-in-the-league, go-to wideout: He finished this regular season with only 28 catches.
That said, Moss does provide second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick with a 6-foot-4 target. And, just as importantly, he mentors younger players on the 49ers.
"He helps me every day," Kaepernick said.
"He's awesome. It would be tough for you to sit here with one of the best who ever played the game and not pick up some information. That would mean you're just not paying attention. It means you're just not looking at the example he sets every single play when he steps on the field," third-year receiver Kyle Williams said. "Just to be able to have his wisdom and advice and input on anything. He knows so much about the game."
That's the sort of thing these older-and-wiser players provide.
"You need a presence in your locker room," former NFL player and coach Herm Edwards said. "There are a lot of guys coming into the league with talent, but you need what I call 'a pro's pro.' They do things right in the classroom, on the practice field, in the locker room. I always tell young guys to watch how the older guys prepare. You practice and prepare more than you play. I don't think everybody realizes that."
Gonzalez fills that role with the Falcons, certainly, and he's not a solo act.
Atlanta linebacker Mike Peterson, who is 36, pointed out that his club benefits from having older players at various positions. Examples: Todd McClure, 35, at center; John Abraham, 34, on the defensive line; Asante Samuel, 32, in the secondary.
"That's the good thing about this team. ... You put all of us together, you come up with a veteran team that has won a lot of good ballgames," Peterson said. "That's what the younger guys lean on – the older guys in this locker room."
The oldest guy in the Patriots' locker room is Brady, 35. Much as rookie quarterbacks took over the NFL this season – particularly Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson – no one should be stunned to see 13-year veteran Brady aiming for a sixth Super Bowl appearance while the first-year QBs are done.
New England's 41-28 victory over Houston last weekend was Brady's 17th playoff victory, breaking Joe Montana's record for most by a quarterback.
Can't hurt to have that kind of resume this time of year.
"Preseason has a certain speed. The regular season has a certain speed. The playoffs have a certain speed. And then even the Super Bowl is a notch up from there," said Joe Theismann, the quarterback on Washington Redskins teams that won the 1983 Super Bowl and reached another. "Even if you talk to Tom, who's been to five, he would tell you that the others are a part of the path and this next one is the most important to him."
AP Sports Writers Josh Dubow in Santa Clara, Calif., Paul Newberry in Flowery Branch, Ga., and Howard Ulman in Foxborough, Mass., contributed to this report.