As Ray Lewis danced onto his home field Sunday to face the Indianapolis Colts in an opening-round playoff game, the great Ravens linebacker hoped he was saying goodbye to Baltimore but not to the NFL. Not quite yet.
After a sloppy start, his teammates did their part to send the Lewis retirement tour on to Denver, beating the Colts 24-9 before an announced crowd of 71,379 that had turned out to bid No. 52 farewell.
It was an arrhythmic affair, defined by ill-timed turnovers, dropped passes and a few long plays. The Ravens couldn't put together consistent offensive drives, but quarterback Joe Flacco completed three passes of 46 yards or more, two of which set up touchdowns.
The day was so thick with storylines that the do-or-die football game at the heart of it seemed almost forgotten at times.
In addition to Lewis making his final home appearance, Colts coach Chuck Pagano returned to Baltimore after spending much of the season in a hospital receiving treatment for leukemia. Pagano was the Ravens' defensive coordinator last season, and his former players feel such an affinity for him that many texted with him throughout his health ordeal. Defensive end Arthur Jones even shaved his head in a show of solidarity.
Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell was also facing his former team, one he coached for three seasons, including a Super Bowl appearance in 2009.
And let's not forget that the Ravens were playing the Colts, the franchise that slipped out of Baltimore in 1984 under the cover of snow and darkness to begin anew in Indianapolis. While some have let go of the old hatred, many fans here can't forget — or forgive. Each time the teams meet, it brings back a flood of memories.
In the end, though, this was Lewis' — and the Ravens' — day.
The crowd roared as images of him appeared on the big video boards at M&T Bank Stadium in the game's waning minutes. He clasped his hands in a prayerful pose and pounded his chest above the heart in acknowledgement. Lewis even lined up on offense for the last play of the game — an impromptu decision that Coach John Harbaugh said, "came from a higher power" — and did his signature squirrel dance at midfield. He then lingered on the field after the game, finally doing a lap so he could point to all the fans who remained in their seats, not wanting Lewis' 17-year ride to end.
These were the moments he fought for as he rehabilitated from a torn triceps that cost him the last 10 games of the regular season.
"I knew how it started, but I never knew how it was going to end here in Baltimore," said Lewis, who announced Wednesday that this season would be his last. "For it to go the way it went today, I wouldn't change anything. There were so many moments today, so many fans, and just the things that were said, 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."
The Ravens will now move on to a far stiffer test, traveling west to face the Denver Broncos — the AFC's top playoff seed and winners of 11 straight games — on Saturday. The Ravens were among Denver's late-season victims, falling to the Broncos 34-17 in Baltimore on Dec. 16. And the game wasn't as close as the score.
Denver quarterback Peyton Manning added a remarkable chapter to his remarkable career this season, returning from a neck injury that had some predicting he would retire to have one of his finest statistical seasons. Manning has always bedeviled the Ravens, with a 9-2 career record against them for the Colts and Broncos.
But it was actually Denver's defense, ranked second in the league in fewest yards allowed, that doomed the Ravens in December. Linebacker Von Miller was as much a star on defense this season as Manning was on offense.
The Broncos are one of the best-balanced teams in the league, and no one has come within a touchdown of them since mid-November.
Perhaps it's only fitting that if Lewis is to extend his career another week, he'll have to do it against Manning, a nemesis and another defining player from a fading NFL generation. "It's a chess match," Lewis said. "I know him very well, and he knows me very well."
To the Ravens' advantage, they finally have most of their starting defense in playing shape after an injury-riddled season.
"I was hoping we would get Denver," said Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who set a franchise playoff record with 145 yards against the Colts. "We'll make it different."
The Ravens did not make a special production of Lewis' final dance onto the field at M&T Bank Stadium. But Flacco noted that teammates staked out space so they would have a good view of Lewis' last entrance. Flacco, not a fan of the dance before he joined Lewis on the Ravens, even asked his wife to bring a video camera so she could tape the moment. "It's one of the coolest things in football," he said. "We're going to miss it around here."
There were plenty of signs that this wasn't just another game. A crowd of Lewis family members stood at the edge of the field during warm-ups, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was there to embrace the great linebacker.
It was also a special day for Pagano. As he stood at midfield before the game, a number of Ravens greeted him, with Harbaugh and safety Ed Reed pulling him into warm embraces. Meanwhile, Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who filled in for Pagano most of the season, was hospitalized in Baltimore Sunday morning with an undisclosed illness and was unable to call plays.
Pagano's presence seemed to mitigate the traditional bitterness Baltimore fans feel toward the Colts. Fans stood and cheered as he was introduced before the game, transitioning to mild boos when his team followed him onto the field.
The atmosphere Sunday felt nothing like it did when the Colts came to town for a playoff game in 2007. Ravens fans thirsted for blood that day, urging their team to avenge the spirit of Johnny Unitas and all the other Baltimore Colts whose legacies were left behind when the franchise moved to Indianapolis aboard a fleet of Mayflower trucks.
"I think that was probably the biggest game we've ever had here," said Justin Sisserman of Mount Washington, reflecting during the pre-game tailgate he hosts beside the stadium. "It was either going to be the best game in Baltimore history, or it was going to be the worst. And it ended up being the worst."
The Ravens lost 15-6 that day despite holding Peyton Manning and the Colts to five field goals. Fans like Sisserman, whose dad banned football from the family television for years after the Colts left Baltimore, took it hard. "I was depressed for a week," he said.
But on Sunday, he and many others spoke of moving on.
Sam Aylor of Salisbury wasn't quite ready to join them. He wore a blue-and-white Unitas jersey underneath his black Ravens cap.
"I just figured Johnny would want to be here to see us whip the Colts," he said. "I'm old school I guess. I'm one of those people who can't let go of the Colts' glory days."
Aylor came to the game with Henry Long, his childhood neighbor from Sparrows Point. Both men grew up idolizing Unitas and his teammates, though they have also taken Lewis and the Ravens into their hearts.
"He's one of us," Aylor said of Lewis. "I hope they put a statue of him right next to the one of Johnny outside the stadium."