Minutes after a grinning Ray Lewis swaggered out of the tunnel and did his trademark dance much to the delight of fans and teammates, the Ravens' star middle linebacker was suddenly all business again.
The smile quickly left Lewis' face as kickoff approached for the linebacker, who announced Wednesday he will retire at the end of the season.
Seventeen years of experience was on display Sunday during Lewis' emotionally-charged final game at M&T Bank Stadium. Lewis recorded a game-high 13 tackles in a 24-9 AFC wild-card victory over the Indianapolis Colts and will join his teammates in Denver for Saturday's divisional game against the Broncos.
Not only was Lewis playing his last home game, he was playing for the first time since he missed 10 games while recovering from surgery to repair a torn right triceps.
"I knew how it started, but I never knew how it was going to end here in Baltimore," said Lewis, who played with a heavy black brace on his right arm. "For it to go the way it went, I wouldn't change anything. There were so many moments, the tears I was seeing from people and I'm trying to hold it in myself because I'm trying to play a game. Just a very, very emotional day."
In the first quarter, Lewis made his presence known. Diagnosing an inside run to the left, Lewis timed up his blitz perfectly and decked Colts rookie running back Vick Ballard for a loss of 1 yard. It signaled what kind of day it would be for Lewis, who had seven tackles by halftime.
Although Lewis showed some signs of rust, the 37-year-old had a solid game overall.
In the second quarter, though, Lewis bobbled a pass from Andrew Luck and was unable to secure a potential interception. The drop prompted groans from the stands.
Afterward, Lewis attributed the lost opportunity to being unable to fully extend his arm due to the brace.
"I'll never live that one down," Lewis said with a laugh. "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."
Lewis endured some good-natured teasing from teammates for dropping the football.
"It couldn't have been any better unless he had caught the interception," said inside linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said. "It was really special. It culminated perfectly for Ray's last hurrah. People were crying, but it's not a sad day. We just try to love up to his standard."
Lewis indicated that he didn't suffer any setbacks with the arm injury and didn't demonstrate any glaring problems.
"I didn't feel pain," said Lewis, who felt so good that he considered shedding his protective brace. "I didn't hurt it one time."
Said cornerback Cary Williams: "He was himself. He was the same guy you've seen for the last 17 years. He was a professional."
Besides mishandling the potential interception, there were a few other rough moments for Lewis.
He was beaten by tight end Dwayne Allen for a gain of 22 yards, also allowing a long reception for a first down to wide receiver Reggie Wayne past his outstretched fingertips. And Lewis crumpled to the ground on one knee after getting stonewalled by offensive guard Samson Satele on a blitz.
Mostly, though, Lewis was Lewis.
"I thought he played exceptionally well," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It's always funny to hear people say, 'Well, he's not the same that was 10 years ago.' Well, who is? None of us, but he's found different ways to play the game and play it so well. He's still a great football player."
During the final minutes of the game, the Ravens saluted Lewis with a montage of his top career moments. That included everything from chasing down Tiki Barber in Super Bowl XXXV to preserving a win over the San Diego Chargers with a tackle of running back Darren Sproles to taking the football away from Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George and running in the interception for a touchdown.
"It was a bunch of tears," said Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, who's been mentored by Lewis. "It was sort of like, 'Save the Last Dance.'"
It wasn't Lewis' final football game, but it did mean the end of an era for the defensive icon as far as playing in Baltimore.
Lewis said it hadn't hit him yet that this was his last home game.
"It probably won't, it probably won't sink in," Lewis said. "The reason why it probably won't is because it's probably the last thing on my mind right now. Seriously, 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 next week head to Denver to get a win."
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