Shooting an inside gap on "fourth down-and-game," Lewis wrapped his arms around running back Darren Sproles in the backfield with 30 seconds left, securing a thrilling 31-26 victory over the Chargers on Sunday in front of 66,882 at Qualcomm Stadium.
The tackle by Lewis at the Chargers' 20-yard line epitomized the strength of the Ravens' defense, which withstood Philip Rivers' 436 passing yards by holding San Diego without a touchdown in five red-zone trips. The play, however, defined the clutch career of Lewis, the Pro Bowl middle linebacker who repeatedly told teammates that the Ravens wouldn't buckle.
"That was probably one of the greatest plays of my career because of what we did as a team," said Lewis, who looked like a victorious heavyweight boxer with a white towel wrapped around his neck.
The Ravens remained perfect this season, improving to 2-0 for the fourth time in team history (the previous three resulted in playoff seasons) because of their nearly flawless play in the red zone.
With two touchdown runs by Willis McGahee and two scoring passes by Joe Flacco, the Ravens thrived in that area, punching the ball in on three of four chances inside the 20-yard line. The Ravens' defense flexed its muscle when backed up in its territory, forcing the Chargers to settle for four short field goals.
None of the Ravens' stands was more dramatic than the last. On first down from the Ravens' 23, the Chargers (1-1) took their shot at the end zone, but Ravens cornerback Frank Walker (who replaced an injured Fabian Washington) broke up the pass to receiver Legedu Naanee.
Three plays later, on fourth-and-2, Lewis said he knew what play was coming as soon as quarterback Philip Rivers dropped the ball down to hand it off. Calling it a risk, he slashed through the middle of the offensive line unblocked and pounced on Sproles to essentially end the game.
"That is a team that knows how to win football games at the end. I guess Ray Lewis knows a little more," coach John Harbaugh said. "He made the greatest play I've ever seen."
Defensive end Trevor Pryce couldn't think of a bigger play that he has witnessed in his 13-year career.
"I played with John Elway and Terrell Davis, and that's up there with anything I've seen them do," Pryce said. "Just the magnitude of the play. It's fourth down-and-game to go. It's the kind of stuff that you write in 'Remember the Titans.' It doesn't happen in real life. But today it did. It couldn't have happened to anybody else but him."
Some players acknowledged that they were shocked at the Chargers' play call. San Diego, which had its starting center and right guard out with injuries, decided to run the ball up the middle with the game on the line.
San Diego coach Norv Turner explained that he chose to run because it looked more like fourth-and-1.
"If you look at the play, we got great movement on the outside," Turner said. "Ray made a great play."
None of the Ravens were surprised by the play of Lewis, who led all defenders with 12 tackles, including three behind the line of scrimmage. The Ravens showed confidence that Lewis could still change games when they signed him this offseason to a seven-year, $44.5 million contract (which is essentially a three-year, $22 million deal).
"The hero always makes a play in the end," linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said. "Who did you expect it would be?"
It was a classic finish for Lewis and the defense, but it was hardly one of their best games.
The Ravens gave up the second-most passing yards in team history, allowing Rivers to throw for 436 yards. They gave up eight plays of 20 yards or more, including touchdown passes of 81 yards to Sproles and 35 yards to Vincent Jackson.
But this defense clamped down when it mattered the most. On 13 plays in the red zone, the Ravens held San Diego to minus-2 yards. They delivered a sack and three other tackles for losses. They limited Rivers to 2-for-7 passing for 4 yards inside the 20.
"You see a couple of big plays here or there, but I told the defense earlier, those third- and fourth-down goal-line stances will win us the ballgame," Lewis said. "I've been in games where we've held under 150 yards. That's cute. Stats are pretty. But if you don't win, you're sick."
The Ravens' offense carried the team through the first three quarters. After a Chargers field goal put them ahead 10-7 late in the first quarter, McGahee bulled his way into the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown. After another San Diego field goal, Flacco hit an uncovered Kelley Washington for a 27-yard touchdown pass.
And after Rivers blindly threw an interception to avoid a sack, Flacco stepped up in the pocket to sidestep the Chargers' pressure and found Todd Heap for a 9-yard touchdown, putting the Ravens ahead 28-16 in the third quarter.
"We didn't have a ton of yards today," said Flacco, who was 17-for-26 for 190 yards, "but we put points on the board."
When the offense faltered in the fourth quarter - Flacco was intercepted and it came up empty for the first time in the red zone - it was the defense that closed out the game.
"It was a team victory," Harbaugh said, "but Ray Lewis put the exclamation point on it when he had to."
Philip Rivers' 436 passing yards were the second most in a game against the Ravens. But quarterbacks who throw for a lot of yards against the Ravens don't necessarily win:
Yds Quarterback, Team Yr. Ravens result
481 Vinny Testaverde, Jets '00 W, 34-20
436 Philip Rivers, Chargers '09 W, 31-26
386 Mark Brunell, Jaguars '00 W, 39-36
383 Drew Brees, Saints '06 W, 35-22
382 Carson Palmer, Bengals '04 L, 27-26
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 13
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 13