STILL SMILING—Ray Lewis smiles during a media availability after an NFL wild card playoff football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Jan. 6, in Baltimore. The Ravens won 24-9. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
by David Ginsburg
AP Sports Writer
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.