Ray Lewis, Ravens defense rise to occasion

Ray Lewis made 13 tackles Sunday in his last home game for the Ravens. Gene Sweeney Jr./Baltimore Sun/Getty Images

BALTIMORE -- As Ray Lewis took one last victory lap around M&T Bank Stadium, it became clear that the Baltimore Ravens' 24-9 playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts was more than the end of an era in Baltimore. It was the celebration of one.

Lewis' final home game was as nostalgic as it was emotional because it played out like so many in his 17-year NFL career. He once again finished as the game's leading tackler and the Ravens defense once again kept a team out of the end zone. The task will obviously be tougher Saturday facing Peyton Manning, a quarterback they haven't beaten in 11 seasons. But the only history that meant anything Sunday involved No. 52. With every defensive stand, there was a sense that this was how it was supposed to end for Lewis, the face of Baltimore's new franchise ending the season of the city's old one.

There will always be a debate whether Lewis is the game's best defensive player and top middle linebacker, but it's difficult to argue Lewis' impact as a leader. A Ravens team that had looked lifeless in losing four of its final five regular-season games suddenly was ferocious in the playoffs with a relentless pass rush and a punishing running game. The start of Lewis' "last ride" -- which is how he characterized these playoffs in his retirement announcement last week -- was defined by toughness and inspiration.

Just 12 weeks removed from tearing his triceps, Lewis recorded 13 tackles with one healthy arm and was on the field for all 87 defensive snaps. While he didn't make any game-changing plays, Lewis "fueled" a defense that stopped the Colts on three trips in the red zone and turned them away on six drives inside the Baltimore 34-yard line.

Others had bigger days for the Ravens, like wide receiver Anquan Boldin, linebacker Paul Kruger and running back Bernard Pierce. But make no mistake, this was unequivocally Ray's day.

"I knew how it started, but I never knew how it was going to end here in Baltimore," said Lewis, dressed in a black suit with a purple and yellow tie. "For it to go the way it went today, I wouldn't change anything. It was just a very, very emotional day."

The day began with Lewis emerging from a smoky tunnel for his signature pregame dance, his right arm engulfed by a large brace. He had trouble getting off blockers, although he busted through the line in the first quarter to drop running back Vick Ballard for a 1-yard loss. In the second quarter, he tackled tight end Coby Fleener to stop him short on third down to force one of Indianapolis' three field goals.

Lewis, though, had the embarrassing moment early in the second quarter when he had an interception bounce off his forearms and then his hands before hitting the ground.

"Yes, I will never live that one down," Lewis said. "I'm going to put that one on the brace."

The rest of the game went exactly as planned for the Ravens and even included one surprise.

As the defense came off the field before the two-minute warning, Lewis removed his helmet and the crowd chanted "Ray, Ray, Ray." He started taking off his shoulder pads before being told to stop. Coach John Harbaugh decided to put Lewis in the backfield for the final play as quarterback Joe Flacco took a knee.

"I think we’re all appreciative, grateful for the opportunity to be here and to witness this historic moment in sports," Harbaugh said.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Lewis did his dance near the middle of the field before getting swarmed by teammates. Lewis noticed there were thousands of fans in the stands after doing a couple of interviews and made a lap around the stadium, holding his injured right arm high in the air. It was reminiscent of what Baltimore's baseball legend, Cal Ripken Jr., did in his final game.

"There's no greater reward than for me to take this last victory lap, for me to see my team, because we have a vision," Lewis said. "We're not trying to end here. This is just my last game at Ravens stadium, and it's the most awesome thing you could ever ask for in any professional career."

When it comes to football in Baltimore, it will always be Johnny Unitas and Ray Lewis. And with Lewis on the field, the Ravens won their last 13 home games.

"Ray told us that we were definitely going to win," safety Ed Reed said. "It wasn't going to happen on his last game at Ravens stadium. It was awesome."

The Ravens are now three wins away from sending out Lewis a Super Bowl winner. Of course, the next games will come against Manning and potentially Tom Brady. Besides the quarterbacks, there's a question whether the Ravens can play with the same intensity at top-seeded Denver after such an emotionally charged game Sunday.

Lewis said that won't be a problem after the Ravens lost to the Broncos by 17 points three weeks ago.

"I've already turned in my iPad to get Denver film now," Lewis said. "It’s onto the next one. That’s one thing about being in this business so long. I told them, ‘We don’t have the 24-hour rule now. We have a less-than-12-hour rule,’ because we are back to work. We knew who we have next week. Denver is going to be well rested. We saw them earlier in the year, but now we get them again with all of our guys back. We are really looking forward to it.”