DENVER - Sometime after the season is over, Peyton Manning will sit down with Ray Lewis and congratulate him on a job well done.
During Lewis' 17-year career, he 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 All Pro linebacker, who is retiring after this season, the Broncos and Ravens meet Saturday in the AFC divisional playoffs. Two NFL icons, each three wins away from a second championship.
"I've addressed it every time I've played against him. He's an excellent player," said Manning, who'd rather share his most heartfelt praise for Lewis with the man himself than with the media. "He's special. That's all you can say."
Special as Lewis may be, Manning has won his last 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 divisional 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 a biceps injury last week and finished with 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. All the other times, whether you win or not, there's only one champ at the end of the day, and if that isn't you or the team that beat you, then so be it."
The Broncos (13-3) are nine-point favorites against the Ravens (11-6) and the odds-on favorite, at 3-1, to win the title.
And while Lewis may carry the baggage from the game six years ago, it's the meeting between these teams a mere four weeks ago in Baltimore that holds the most weight in the respective locker rooms this week.
Denver won that game 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, playing without Lewis that day, got a couple courtesy scores at the end.
For Denver, it was supposed to be the first truly stern test during what has become an 11-game winning streak, compiled mostly against teams with losing records that were out of the playoff picture.
For Baltimore, it was a humbling comedown, but one the Ravens have spent this week excusing, going with a variety of explanations: Lewis and several others were out of the lineup, Broncos receivers pushed off too much, etc.
"We'll make it different," said Ravens receiver, Anquan Boldin, in a tone-setting statement that came after Baltimore's win in the wild-card round. Boldin got shut out in the first meeting against the Broncos.
The Broncos have not been big on bravado all season and they're not changing a thing for the playoffs. With Manning setting the tone, they remain focused and sound very much like a team that isn't taking anything for granted - not even a rematch against a team Denver beat by 17 on the road.