Ray Lewis' Ravens held on for dear life, a seemingly certain Super Bowl victory only a few yards from slipping away.
In the end, however, Lewis got the finale he wanted to his decorated 17-year career, a world championship secured by one last defensive stand against the younger, faster San Francisco 49ers.
When it was finally over, Lewis bellowed at the sky, his arms wide open as confetti rained around him. The face of the Ravens was a Super Bowl champion for the second time and a retiree for the first.
"Baltimore!" he shouted, clutching the Lombardi Trophy.
"It's simple," Lewis said when CBS announcer Jim Nantz asked him what he made of the victory. "When God is for you, who can be against you?"
He had announced that this was his "last ride" just before the playoffs, when few gave the Ravens a chance to go all the way. In the days that followed, some teammates would say the emotional announcement was the turning point in their season.
Lewis' last game was also perhaps his strangest. The Ravens jumped to a 28-6 lead only to sacrifice almost all of it after a 33-minute power outage struck the Mercedes-Benz Superdome early in the third quarter. After the lights returned, Lewis' defense could hardly slow the 49ers.
Before all the insanity, Lewis gave Ravens fans some vintage moments.
With black triangles painted under his eyes, he gathered his teammates around him one last time, thrusting his face into theirs as he woofed pre-game inspiration. The Ravens' faithful chanted "Seven Nation Army" in the background.
Lewis panted with emotion as Alicia Keys sang the national anthem. Once the game began, he was his usual lively self, strutting and flapping his arms to the crowd every time he got in on a hit.
But there were reminders that this wasn't the Lewis of 2000. When 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took off running, the 37-year-old Lewis wasn't quick enough to close on him. And he could not cover tight end Vernon Davis, who seemed to burst open on almost every 49ers passing play, catching six passes on eight targets for 104 yards.
Dannell Ellerbe was the best Ravens linebacker on the field.
Quarterback Joe Flacco, whom Lewis had anointed "the general" earlier in the playoffs, was the clear star for Baltimore.
Ultimately the Ravens' defense made the defining stand late in the game, Lewis barking directions when it mattered most.
"The final series of Ray Lewis' career was a goal-line stand to win the Lombardi Trophy," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Ray said it on the podium: How could it be any other way than that?"
The last week of Lewis' career was just as complicated as the previous 17 years. Amid all the plaudits for his greatness came allegations in a Sports Illustrated article that he had obtained performance-enhancing drugs to aid his recovery from a torn triceps. Lewis adamantly denied using deer antler spray — laced with a banned hormone according to its maker — and said he was more agitated than angry about the controversy.
But the story gave critics new ammunition to question Lewis' self-image as a morally upright warrior.
Baltimore fans have never paid Lewis' detractors much mind. For them he'll always be the face of a pro football renaissance that began in 1996, 12 years after the Colts had broken their hearts by fleeing town.
The stats and accolades say plenty about Lewis: 17 seasons, more than any linebacker currently in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, 13 Pro Bowl selections, Super Bowl MVP, NFL All-Decade.
But it's the images that will really abide.
Just as Baltimoreans remember Johnny Unitas, coolly cocking the ball during a fourth-quarter comeback, they will forever dream of the young No. 52, dashing from sideline to sideline to corral every ballcarrier in sight. They'll picture the hips shimmying and the chest thrusting as Lewis emerged from the tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium to the beats of Nelly's "Hot in Herre." They'll recall the fire in his eyes and the music in his voice as he barked at teammates, "Any dogs in the house?"
It's a complicated legacy to be sure. Around the country, many have never gotten past the murder charges Lewis faced in connection with the fatal stabbing of two men outside an Atlanta club the night of the 2000 Super Bowl. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction-of-justice charge and agreed to testify against his co-defendants, later reaching financial settlements with the families of both victims to avoid civil trials.
Lewis stood in the eye of a media storm as he led the Ravens to the Super Bowl in 2001, a year after the Atlanta incident. He wasn't asked about it nearly as much this year, though when he was, he said he lives with it every day.
Atlanta aside, other fans see Lewis as a phony because of his outspoken Christianity and showy leadership.
His hold on a football nation is undeniable, however. No other player's jersey was close to as prevalent on the streets of New Orleans in the past week. And stars from around the NFL have paid verbal homage to Lewis, not only as an on-field force but as a personal counselor on the travails of public life.
For a few moments on Sunday night, all the complexity washed away and Lewis was just a man who had given his life to football, celebrating the perfect ending.
"Daddy gets to come home now," Lewis said. "It is the most ultimate feeling ever. This is the way you do it. No other way to go out and end a career. This is how you do it."