BALTIMORE - Nearly every seat at M&T Bank Stadium was filled long before Sunday's 1 p.m. Ravens-Colts kickoff, many by spectators decked out in No. 52 jerseys, as more than 70,000 fans made sure to be in place to watch Ray Lewis do his famous pregame "Squirrel" dance one last time.
They cheered in delight as he walked through the manufactured smoke and out of the tunnel onto the field to familiar chords and then made all the gyrating moves they know by heart before he was mobbed by teammates who, like the fans, weren't about to miss the spectacle.
But they were wrong. It wasn't his last dance. He danced again, on the field after the final play of Baltimore's 24-9 playoff win. Lewis had been placed at the back of the victory formation - his first play on offense since high school two decades ago - and after quarterback Joe Flacco took a knee Lewis feigned a block and then went into an abbreviated "Squirrel" as the crowd roared.
"Pretty cool to have that guy standing behind you," Flacco said.
Lewis capped the day by doing a Ripkenesque victory lap of the stadium long after the game had ended. The future Hall of Fame middle linebacker will play again - the Ravens are at Denver on Saturday - but never again in Baltimore, his home since 1996.
"For it to go the way it went today, I wouldn't change anything," said Lewis, who announced his retirement effective at season's end on Wednesday. "There were so many moments, 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, very emotional day."
"I think we're all appreciative - grateful - for the opportunity to be here and to witness this historic moment in sports," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said afterward. "You feel it right at your core ... the Baltimore fans are so proud of Ray Lewis."
While Lewis clearly spurred the crowd and motivated his teammates, his on-field performance was a mixed bag - to be expected considering he last played in Week 6, when he suffered a torn triceps against Dallas.
Wearing a bulky brace that ran nearly the entire length of his right arm, Lewis finished with a game-high 13 tackles, including a solo early in the game when he shot the gap and stopped Indianapolis running back Vick Ballard for a one-yard loss.
"It seems like he played really well," Harbaugh said. "It's always so funny to hear people say, 'Well, he's not the same that he was 10 years ago.' Well, who is? None of us, but he's found different ways to play the game and play it well."
But he also did get blocked out of some run plays, was a step slow on a 20-yard completion to Reggie Wayne that sailed just over his fingertips, and he dropped a sure interception on a tipped ball.
"I'm never going to live that one down," said Lewis, laughing. "I'm going to [blame] that one on the brace."
Still, while he's one of the best ever to play his position, his impact has never been solely about his own performance. He has always lifted the players around him, from fellow linebackers like Jamie Sharper, Ed Hartwell, Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott who had great success in Baltimore and never matched after leaving for teams that didn't feature Lewis, to offensive players who fed off his leadership and passion.
"We all wanted to play well for him and make sure it wasn't his last game," receiver Anquan Boldin said.
Lewis said he felt good, did not re-injure his right triceps, and never worried about it during the game.
"I give all the credit to a bunch of people that I've seen, a bunch of doctors and a bunch of treatments that I've done," he said. "To be back here is just probably one of the most amazing things ever for me."
Lewis said his day began with a quiet ride to the stadium with teammate Brendon Ayanbadejo, who tried in vain to get Lewis to take a few keepsake photos.
"My total focus was to come in and play my heart out and get my team a win," he said. "Everything else just came with it."
There was a lot of everything else.
He got pregame hugs from Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, he spent some emotional time with his family, and then he got to play for the first time in 12 weeks and soak in the adulation.
The stadium parking lots were alive early with Ravens fans here to watch a playoff game but also to pay tribute to a player who has been with the organization for so long he recalls asking general manager Ozzie Newsome, when Newsome called him to say the Ravens were going to draft him, what the team's name was and what its colors were. He was an early fan favorite and his relationship with the city was cemented after he led the team to a win in Super Bowl XXXV in his, and the franchise's, fifth year in the NFL.
Tailgating before the game, Rick Romeo, of Sykesville, summed up the feelings of so many season-ticket holders.
"Ray Lewis is like us - we've always been here, every game. It's going to be a sad day when he's gone but it's been a beautiful thing," said Romeo, who admitted to being emotional when he heard Lewis was retiring. "I just really appreciate that we had him on our team."
The fans showed that appreciation repeatedly, screaming for him during warm-ups, giving him a tremendous ovation during the pregame introductions, giving a little extra at the end of any play he was even peripherally involved in, and sticking around long after the game to cheer him off the field.
"It was incredible, man," cornerback Cary Williams said. "We just witnessed some of the greatest fans honoring one of the greatest players of all time."
Ordinarily players run out of the tunnel well onto the field, slapping hands and forming a line during player introductions. This time, everyone formed a kind of wall near the end zone to be as close as possible to the "Squirrel."
"Seeing him come out of the tunnel for the last time here at M&T Bank Stadium was big. It was really special," said tight end Dennis Pitta, who caught a touchdown. "I just feel fortunate to have been a part of it."
Flacco told his wife to bring a video camera to capture Lewis' last dance.
"It's one of the coolest things in football, and we're going to miss it around here," he said. "I wasn't always necessarily a fan of it before I got here, but as soon as I saw it for the first time in person, I was drawn in."
Even Harbaugh admitted, "I had my eyeballs on the tunnel."
After registering his 13 tackles and helping the Ravens to their 11th playoff victory, Lewis thought his day was done as the clock ticked under two minutes. But then someone had the idea that he should be on the field when his final game in Baltimore ended. So he was sent back out and positioned well behind Flacco in the victory formation.
"I've always wanted to do that play," Lewis said later.
"That was inspired from above, I guess," said Harbaugh.
Lewis said he would have no trouble moving past the emotion of his final game to get ready for the Broncos, but he made clear how much he appreciated the day and his 17-year career in Baltimore.
"Everything I did to get back, if it wasn't for my team, it was for my city," Lewis said. "I'm not just here in this city to play football, I'm here to actually create real change in this city. If my effort can give you hope, faith or love, then so be it. I'll give everything I have. ...
"Hopefully, through what I did today, somebody was uplifted."