FOXBOROUGH, Mass. ——Ray Lewis knelt on the field and put his head on the ground, practically attaching himself to the turf in complete jubilation.
Surrounded by his adoring teammates, the retiring middle linebacker was overcome with emotion following the Ravens' 28-13 victory over the New England Patriots on Sunday night in the AFC championship game at Gillette Stadim.
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Gillette Stadium, 1 Patriot Place, Foxboro, MA 02035, USA
Not only did Lewis return from a major injury after undergoing surgery and a grueling rehabilitation, but the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year is now headed to the Super Bowl in New Orleans to square off with the San Francisco 49ers.
"There's something special in our locker room," Lewis said. "There's a certain type of love we have for each other. For me to come out and say this was my last ride and for me to be heading back to the Super Bowl for the possibility of a second ring, how else do you cap off a career?
"How else do you honor your fans and give them everything you cheer for? Baltimore is one of the most loyal places I've been around since 1996. The greatest reward you can give them is another chance at a Super Bowl. The last ride, I can only say I'm along for the ride."
Weeks after announcing that this would be the final season of his stellar NFL career after 17 seasons, the former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player is leaving the game in dramatic fashion.
Now, Lewis' unfinished business is trying to win his second Super Bowl ring over a decade after the Ravens' win over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.
"It's awesome that we can give our general an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl in his final year," cornerback Cary Williams said. "Ray has been a tremendous leader for this organization, for this community. It's an honor to even be a teammate of his. He's going to go down as the greatest of all time. What a great way to send him out with a Super Bowl trip."
Whether it was Ravens majority owner Steve Bisciotti, coach John Harbaugh or other Baltimore sports figures like Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps or Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, tribute was paid to Lewis after defeating a Patriots team headlined by quarterback Tom Brady.
"The coolest thing is watching the amount of emotion and leadership Ray Lewis has," Phelps said. "I can't say enough about the passion that Ray Lewis has. It's one of the most incredible things I've seen in my entire life. When Big Ray and Little Ray [running back Ray Rice] were hugging on the field, I broke down in tears. The amount of love and respect I have for him, I'm literally on Cloud Nine."
Lewis recorded a game-high 14 tackles, giving him 44 tackles in three playoff games since returning from an injury that was initially expected to end his season.
The 37-year-old didn't have a huge game as far as impactful plays, but he played his traditional role by providing leadership, hard-nosed tackling against the run and quarterbacking his defense into the right strategic moves.
Lewis' only real low point Sunday night was being penalized for a personal foul for striking tight end Aaron Hernandez in the helmet, though his aiming point was lower and it appeared he was leading with his shoulder on the tackle.
However, Lewis was hit with a personal foul for unnecessary roughness when he couldn't avoid hitting Hernandez high when the tight end crouched to brace for the impact of Lewis' tackle.
"I always love the game, but some things you can't control as a defender," Lewis said. "The guy saw me coming and he ducked. To get a flag on that in a championship game, it always bothers you because you already have so many rules defensively. I won't get too much into that. Again, we never [wavered]. We got frustrated a few times and everything fell into place at the end."
And it did for not only Lewis, but for other veteran players like free safety Ed Reed, 34, who goes back to his hometown in Louisiana as an AFC champion.
"It's just special, man," Reed said. "God is truly amazing for what he's taken us through. We'll get to that conversation [about his return to Louisiana]. I'm just grateful to win this one right now."
One year ago at this same field where so many other worthy football teams have come up short, the Ravens lost the AFC championship.
They were defeated, 23-20, as kicker Billy Cundiff flubbed a chip-shot field goal and wide receiver Lee Evans mishandled a potential game-winning touchdown pass that was ripped out of his hands by Sterling Moore.
Lewis recalled the feeling and his words to his teammates from a year ago compared to how they're feeling now.
"After that game, my speech, that moment, that conversation I had with my team, I remember telling them, 'God doesn't make mistakes. He's never made one mistake,'" Lewis recalled. "Last year, we ran our course. We came back and faced with adversity. There was no way God was going to bring us back here twice to feel the same feeling. He had a real plan for us the whole year. I congratulate my team. We stuck to the course. It was always, 'Next man up.' We're back and we're on our way to the Super Bowl."