BALTIMORE (AP) — After dancing before and after the game and making a team-high 13 tackles in between, Ray Lewis took a lap around the stadium to thank the fans of Baltimore for their support over the past 17 years.
It was an unforgettable afternoon for the 71,379 in attendance, players from both teams and most of all, the man in the middle.
Lewis intends to retire after the Ravens complete their playoff run. On Sunday, he did his part to ensure that his last home game wouldn't also be the final chapter of his NFL career.
"I knew how it started, but I never knew how it was going to end here in Baltimore," Lewis said. "For it to go the way it went today, I wouldn't change nothing. There were so many moments, so many fans, just the things that were said. The tears that I saw from people, and I was trying to hold it in myself trying to play a game.
"Just a very, very, very emotional day," Lewis said.
Deftly battling his emotions and opposing linemen, Lewis helped the Ravens beat the Indianapolis Colts 24-9 in the opening round of the playoffs. Although the 37-year-old middle linebacker dropped a sure interception, his performance — and the emotional lift it provided — was a key component of the victory.
Lewis finished up by entering on offense, 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage as Baltimore ran a kneel-down to wrap up the game. As the clock ticked down to 0:00, he broke into his trademark dance.
"It was a neat moment, wasn't it?" Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
Wearing a brace on his right arm, Lewis played for the first time since tearing his right triceps on Oct. 14 against Dallas. He had seven tackles in the first half, including one in the Indianapolis backfield on running back Vick Ballard during a blitz.
Early in the second quarter, Lewis had a deflected pass in his grasp with designs of taking it into the end zone. But he dropped the ball, and many in the sellout crowd uttered a collective groan.
Upon being reminded of the drop, Lewis chuckled and said, "I'll never live that one down. I'm going to put that one on the brace because I tried to put my arm up but the brace wouldn't come up."
He wanted to remove the brace during the game, but thought better of it.
"I didn't feel pain," Lewis said. "I didn't hurt it one time."
Baltimore will next travel to Denver to face the top-seeded Broncos on Saturday.
There was some question as to how long Lewis would last in his first game action in three months. But the aged warrior appeared as fresh as the day he played his first game back in 1996.
"I thought he played exceptionally well," Harbaugh said. "It's always funny to hear people say, 'Well, he's not the same that was 10 years ago.' Well, who is?"
Lewis may have lost a step over the past decade, but he's still good enough to lead a playoff team in tackles. And to some, it was as if Lewis was 27 again.
"He was himself. He was the same guy you've seen for the last 17 years," teammate Cary Williams said. "He was the guy who led the huddle, just like always. We followed right behind him because we believe in him."
With Lewis leading the way, the Ravens held the Colts without a touchdown. It was only the second time this season that Indianapolis failed to score in double figures.
As the clock approached the two-minute warning, fans behind the Baltimore sideline chanted in unison, "Thank you, Ray!"
Then, with 1:57 left, the scoreboard aired a montage of Lewis' finest plays, including several crushing hits. He responded by clasping his hands together over his head, tapping his heart and waving.
Minutes before the opening kickoff, Lewis thrilled the sellout crowd during introductions by coming out of the tunnel and gyrating to the tune "Hot in Herre."
Hundreds of fans had their cellphones raised to either take a picture or videotape the moment. The players were captivated by the scene, too.
"I'm sure everyone was affected by it," Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin said. "We all wanted to play for him and make sure it wasn't his last game."
Lewis does the dance only before home games, and this was Baltimore's last this season at M&T Bank Stadium. Asked if he might consider a reprise if the Ravens reach the Super Bowl, he sheepishly declined comment.
After concluding pre-game warmups, Lewis addressed the entire team on the 5-yard line. After his short speech, Lewis hugged a few teammates, mingled with family members beyond the end zone and jogged to the sideline, where he engaged in a lengthy embrace with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Thousands of fans were wearing No. 52 jerseys. Lewis has been a fan favorite in Baltimore since he was selected in the first round of the Ravens' initial draft in 1996.
Ken Malik, 61, wore a purple Lewis jersey and a broad smile.
"It's the end of an era for the Baltimore Ravens," he said. "He's been a great player. He's stood for what the Baltimore Ravens are and what they have been since they (came) to Baltimore."
There is no age limitation for fans of Lewis, who made his NFL debut when Kylie O'Neill-Mullin was 4. She was wearing a long black tunic with Lewis' number on the front and back.
"This is a big deal. It's the last time he'll come out of the tunnel," she said. "It's the last time he'll play on this field. I'm excited to be here."
One fan had a sign with a purple heart and the No. 52 in the middle. Earlier, a helicopter flew overhead with the No. 52 painted on its undercarriage.
Lewis was elected to 13 Pro Bowls and is a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He told his teammates on Wednesday, "This will be my last ride."
One fan in the crowd had a sign that read: "Let's Ride To New Orleans," site of the Super Bowl. Two more wins, and the Ravens will be there.
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