PITTSBURGH - When it was over, when the Steelers turned off the scoreboard lights inside Heinz Field and chased an army of delirious fans clad in black and gold into the cold Pennsylvania night, a potentially harsh reality began to come into focus for Ray Lewis and the Ravens.
What if this was Lewis' last game in purple and black?
What if, after 13 years, this was goodbye?
Lewis, 33, can become a free agent this offseason, and it's quite likely that the next contract he signs will be his last. If last night was Lewis' curtain call in a Ravens uniform, perhaps we should let his performance serve as a reminder of what made him so much fun to watch for so many years.
Lewis had nine tackles, but none was bigger than the hit he had in the first quarter when he crashed into Steelers running back Willie Parker, clubbing the football from his right arm. The Ravens didn't turn the fumble recovery into points, but it gave them a much-needed shift in momentum.
Last night, Lewis pinballed his way around the field for 60 minutes, shoving aside blockers, dragging ball carriers to the ground, dropping into coverage and blitzing Ben Roethlisberger, helping the Ravens hold Pittsburgh to 52 rushing yards.
But Lewis and the Ravens couldn't quite find enough ways to slow the Steelers' passing game, and Roethlisberger tormented them with his ability to scramble and throw on the run.
He finished 16-for-33 for 255 yards and one touchdown, and though he was sacked four times, he was able to buy himself enough time to make plays. Twice Lewis had Roethlisberger in his sights just as the quarterback released the ball for a completion.
"It's hard for a guy to cover for a long time," Roethlisberger said. "We played backyard football at times."
The Steelers held the ball for 33:09 compared with Baltimore's 26:51, and in the swirling snow, the Ravens' season slipped away.
Maybe it's foolish to assign meaning to events that might seem important only in retrospect, through the sharp lens of history. Months from now, Lewis, his agent, and the Ravens' front office will sit down and haggle over how many millions of dollars his future performance and leadership might be worth.
It's possible - perhaps even likely - that the sides will come to an amicable agreement, meaning that last night's 23-14 loss to the Steelers in the AFC championship game will be just another memory in the long and mostly harmonious marriage between Lewis and the Ravens. No. 52 has been the face of Baltimore's franchise almost since its inception, and to see perhaps the greatest linebacker in NFL history wearing any other uniform next season would feel surreal, if not downright cruel.
But the modern NFL is a business, not a marriage. And if recent history tells us anything, it is that there are no guarantees, no golden parachutes for a player in the autumn of his career. Joe Montana and Jerry Rice did not finish their Hall of Fame careers in San Francisco, instead limping off into the sunset wearing alien colors and looking like strangers. Brett Favre's willingness to trade in the green and gold of the Green Bay Packers after 16 seasons for the green and white of the New York Jets was another reminder of just how fickle the sport can be when Father Time and the salary cap clash with loyalty.
"We have a number of guys back, and we'll try to keep as many of them as we can," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after the game. "We'll try to keep as many of them as we possibly can. That will be our goal. We'll see what we can get done."
In warm-ups Lewis didn't walk onto the field and he didn't run. He skipped, bounding across the turf with boyish enthusiasm, bobbing his skull-capped head and flapping his arms, looking like a man who had neither cares nor concerns. Just joy.
Defensive artistry in football has always been difficult to describe. Violent tackles and blanket coverage are never going to remind us of a night at the ballet. They'll never possess the obvious beauty of an athletic wide receiver contorting his body while leaping into the air for a catch. A great quarterback can feel like a painter, his every completion a brush stroke on an empty canvas. But defense, even at its best, is mostly a brutal affair, a collision of muscle and rage, more destructive and unsettling than visually pleasing.
Yet for 13 years, Lewis has played inside linebacker like an artist. Not a painter or a poet, but a sculptor chiseling away at a piece of granite with equal parts anger, violence, enthusiasm and genius. Only when he's finished do you really see things take shape.
He has done it so often and so brilliantly during his career that you almost take for granted some Sundays how hard his job is. As a young man - most obviously 2000, the season he led the Ravens to a Super Bowl trophy - he could run like a gazelle and tackle with the controlled brutality of a hungry lion. But when years and injuries robbed him of bits and pieces of his freakish athletic ability, he became something of an on-field professor, one who could pick apart an offense's schemes as though he had drawn them up himself.
Lewis' style of play has even come to mirror Baltimore's self-image in some respects. The chip on his shoulder, and his drive to prove himself and silence his critics, is what makes him so unique and so interesting. He has flaws as a person, and they have been documented here and elsewhere. For some, those flaws have made him human.
Lewis didn't skip as he left the field when it was over. He put his head down and walked slowly into the tunnel, a boisterous Super Bowl celebration taunting him as he went. In the locker room, he said almost nothing, putting on his black fedora and salmon-colored suit in silence. He's chatty after victories, but in recent years he has taken to being sullen and distant after big losses.
It was obvious he wanted his thoughts to be only his own last night. His teammates were left to fill in the gaps and tiptoe around the elephant in the room.
"That's the business of the NFL," Trevor Pryce said. "If you know it, you're prepared for it. My first few years I didn't understand that. You think it's going to be the same guys, but every year, it's five or 10 new ones. These are your brothers and your cousins no matter who they are. You get to know each other more than teammates. These are your friends and family."
When he was finally dressed, Lewis slipped into the hallway with his head down, making eye contact with no one, his black leather bag slung over his shoulder. In silence, he walked toward the Ravens' bus, eager to get home, but also moving quickly toward an uncertain future.