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Commentary: Ravens ready to make a run for Ray

Sitting in an old-school Carroll barber shop, I'm staring at a wall adorned by exactly one autographed photo of a Baltimore Raven. It's Ray Lewis.

A few feet away hangs a Ray Lewis Ravens cap.

The customer in the chair to my left is getting a haircut from a shear expert wearing Lewis' No. 52 Ravens jersey, one of thousands across the state decked out in that fashion on this so-called "purple Friday."

Perhaps more remarkable than all his tackles, Pro Bowl appearances and awards is the fact that Lewis - a reviled figure early in his career who accepted a misdemeanor obstruction plea after being charged with murder - became the most beloved of all Ravens as well as a popular player nationally. A glib pitchman who will take his powerful personality to ESPN once this season ends.

His passion, his religious fervor for the game, has always resonated.

As much as fans like Lewis and respect his game, however, it doesn't compare to the way those who really know him feel about him. Teammates past and present have been effusive in their praise of the embodiment of Ravens football since his Wednesday announcement that he will retire at the end of this, his 17th season in the NFL.

Oh, it will be a highly motivated Baltimore football team that takes the field today against the Indianapolis Colts in the first round of the playoffs. Lewis' teammates have vowed to do everything they can to help the future Hall of Famer go out on top.

"We will give all we've got Sunday for Ray. We owe it to him," running back Ray Rice told reporters on Wednesday. "I don't want it to be the last time I play with him."

How far can emotion and inspiration take a team? Pretty far. Just look at the other team on the field today.

With a talent level near the bottom of the league one year after going 2-14, the Colts were universally expected to stink. And they lost two of three to start before their coach, Chuck Pagano, was diagnosed with leukemia. Inspired by "Chuckstrong," rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts became the surprise story of the season, going 11-5 and making the postseason.

Still, this is a great matchup for a Ravens team that struggled to 1-4 in December. Rice & Co. should be able to run all over Indy. Ed Reed is the last safety a young QB wants to throw against. And Lewis' fresh legs in his first game since tearing his triceps in Week 6 were expected to be an asset even before his surprise announcement.

Not that a team needs extra motivation in the playoffs, but the Ravens now have it. As hard as Lewis worked to get back from his injury, as much as he has meant to the franchise since the day he was drafted in 1996, what player or coach would dare give anything less than maximum effort?

Those who've watched him and studied him over the years are calling him one of the best - if not the best - middle linebackers in history. Those who've played alongside him are calling him the best - not one of the best - teammate they ever had.

Trent Dilfer, who parlayed half-a-season as a starting quarterback in Baltimore into a championship ring, a Disney trip that should've gone to Super Bowl XXXV MVP Lewis, and a career as an ESPN analyst, spent only one of his 13 years in the NFL as Lewis' teammate. That was enough for him to know all he needed to about "God's Linebacker," who impressed Dilfer as much off the field as on.

"He is the most productive player but his messaging within the locker room is always right," Dilfer said this week. "You trust everything about him and he makes everybody better. ... There's an intensity to him. That intensity is authentic. It's genuine and it's always directed at making the football organization better.

"I've never seen a person better than him at those three layers: preparation, leadership and play."

Lewis has been preparing for this game for three months. And his entire life.

Seeing him emerge from the tunnel for one last pregame dance will be unforgettable. For fans, for players, for Lewis himself.

"That moment is for everybody from the day I walked in here in 1996," Lewis said Wednesday. "It will be probably one of the glorious moments of my life."

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