Ray Lewis ran on the field one more time and the man who has written the Ravens’ defensive record book had another career first left in him. As quarterback Joe Flacco prepared to kneel down, Lewis jogged about 10 yards behind him and took his place in victory formation.
Once Flacco took the final snap and handed the ball to referee Mike Carey, Lewis did his trademark dance. This was indeed Lewis’ day. After a 17-year run with one franchise, he earned that much in the final home game of his career.
But when it was over, the Ravens rushed onto the field to celebrate the continuation of not just Lewis’ Hall of Fame worthy career, but their season. A 24-9 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in front of an announced 71,379 at M&T Bank Stadium sends the Ravens into the second round of the playoffs, where they will meet a Denver Broncos’ team that embarrassed them by 17 points at home three weeks ago.
The Ravens and Broncos will play at Mile High Stadium at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, and a win would get the Ravens back into the AFC championship game for a second straight season. As it is, the Ravens have now won a playoff game five straight seasons. John Harbaugh is the first coach since the 1970 NFL merger to accomplish that in his first five seasons at the helm.
“I think we’re all appreciative, grateful for the opportunity to be here and to witness this historic moment in sports,” said Harbaugh who is now 6-4 in the postseason, including 4-0 in wild-card games. “It wasn’t just about one guy. Nobody understands it more than the one guy we’re talking about. It was about a team. It was about a city, a fan base, about a great sport, about a great career. I’m just humbled to be part of it.”
Lewis, who announced Wednesday that this playoff run would be his “last ride,” took a victory lap around M&T Bank Stadium, reminiscent of former Oriole Cal Ripken Jr. at Camden Yards after he broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak. In his first game since he tore his right triceps on Oct. 14, Lewis was credited with a game-high 13 tackles.
“It probably won’t sink in,” said Lewis when asked about never getting an opportunity to play at M&T Bank Stadium again. “You know what, the reason is because the next thing on my mind is, as a team, we are poised to go do something. As men, we made a commitment to each other and that is to head next week to Denver to get a win.”
Flacco and the Ravens’ defense which gave up plenty of yards but kept the Colts out of the end zone turned a tenuous four-point halftime lead into a relatively comfortable victory, allowing the Ravens to pay tribute to Lewis in the game’s final couple of minutes.
Shrugging off a sluggish start, Flacco threw second-half touchdowns to tight end Dennis Pitta and wide receiver Anquan Boldin to pull away from the Colts, who had rebounded from a two-win 2011 season to become one of the surprises of the NFL.
Held without a catch in the first half, Boldin set a playoff team record with 145 receiving yards on five catches. His 18-yard touchdown over Darius Butler with 9:14 to play gave the Ravens the 24-9 lead, and cornerback Cary Williams all but sealed the victory with an interception of rookie Andrew Luck on the Colts’ next possession. The Ravens’ 441 yards of offense, which included 103 rushing yards from rookie Bernard Pierce, was a franchise playoff record.
“The bottom line is we haven’t won it all, and that’s been our goal, and that’s our goal this year,” Flacco said. “Right now, we’re just focused on going up to Denver and we’ll have to move on from this one quickly and get another step closer to our goal.”
After the game, Boldin acknowledged that he wanted to play Denver again and when asked why Saturday will be different, the wide receiver said, “We’ll make it different.”
The AFC North-champion Ravens entered the playoffs having lost four of five games, but they showed some significant progress in some areas while continuing to look vulnerable in others.
A re-tooled offensive line, which featured Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, Michael Oher at right tackle and Kelechi Osemele at left guard, allowed Flacco to be sacked only once and gave him the time to take several shots down the field. Flacco was 12-of-23 for 282 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers in a game where the Ravens averaged 7.9 yards per play and had eight plays of 20 yards or more.
The Ravens also rushed for 170 yards but the ground game was marred by two Ray Rice fumbles, his first two turnovers of the season.
“I’m going to address it. I’m not a fumbler, you guys know that, and that’ll be the last time I address me fumbling,” said Rice who lost both fumbles in Colts’ territory. “It won’t happen again.”
On defense, the Ravens allowed the Colts to amass 419 yards and to control the ball for 37:32, yet they forced two turnovers and sacked Luck three times. Luck completed 28-of-54 passes for 288 yards, but he turned the ball over twice in Ravens’ territory.
By the time pre-game introductions began, there wasn’t an open seat to be found. Following the announcement of safety Ed Reed who also may have played his last home game as a Raven, Lewis came out and did his trademark dance as the Ravens rushed toward him. Flacco joked that he tried to convince his wife, Dana, to bring in a video camera to capture the moment. Harbaugh also inched forward to get a good view.
With all the emotion on both sides — Colts head coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano was on the sidelines for the second straight week as he battles leukemia — neither team got off to a particularly good start. The Ravens finally found the end zone on fullback Vonta Leach’s 2-yard run 50 seconds before halftime, a score that was set up by a 47-yard screen pass to Rice.
That appeared to get Flacco going. He was 3-for-4 for 76 yards on the Ravens’ second drive of the third quarter, which ended with a 20-yard touchdown to Pitta. Following kicker Adam Vinatieri’s 40-yard miss early in the fourth, Flacco needed just five plays to get the Ravens in the end zone as he hit Boldin for 18 yards.
About an hour after the game and his victory lap, Lewis said he would allow his teammates to enjoy the victory for no more than 12 hours. Lewis had already turned in his iPad so it could be loaded with game film of Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Ravens fans may never forget Lewis’ final home game, but the 37-year-old linebacker had already moved on.