NEW ORLEANS -- You don't have to buy everything that Ray Lewis is selling -- and plenty of people don't, me included -- to enjoy the storybook ending that was his "last ride.''
Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens are champions of the NFL again, 12 years after their first Super Bowl ring was earned, and he will forever be remembered for having gone out on top, in a fashion so few get to experience. It's not really important that folks outside of the Baltimore organization believe in Lewis's ability to inspire and lift his teammates to greatness. Because they do. And that was enough to get the job done this season, wasn't it?
Lewis is almost comically self-absorbed at times, far from the great player he once was, and leaves many cold with his mixture of religion and football or the questions about his off-the-field behavior -- both long past and far more recent.
But give him this: The Ravens do follow his lead, and in this case, they followed it all the way to the winning podium and the big confetti shower that capped Super Bowl XLVII and Baltimore's thrilling 34-31 conquest of San Francisco on Sunday night in the occassionally power-addled Superdome.
Lewis wasn't the reason the Ravens won on this night. In fact, he had a downright brutal game in the first half, consistently getting blocked out of plays or looking old and slow in attempted coverage of 49ers">49ers dyanmic tight end Vernon Davis. But Lewis was one of the reasons why the Ravens were here in the first place, because his return to the lineup after missing 10 weeks with a torn triceps coincided with the beginning of Baltimore's unexpected playoff run.
His well-choreographed retirement plans gave his Ravens teammates a cause to rally around, and they seized it. They wanted to take him out a winner, and he wanted to share with them the feeling of winning it all, being as he was the one and only Ravens still playing from the franchise's 2000 Super Bowl team.
And when the Ravens needed some defense, and the game hung in the balance, it was Lewis and Co. who held the line against the onrushing 49ers, rising up to stiffen and not break after San Francisco reached the Baltimore 5-yard line with three cracks at taking the lead inside of two minutes. It was one last chance for Lewis to be the man in the middle for the Ravens, and the history books will show he rose to the occasion.
"Honestly, the most exciting thing ever was the conversations that we were having at the goal line,'' Lewis said. "Nobody ever panicked, everybody looked at each other, and there was no panic. When you have that, when your back is against the wall, and they have three more plays at the goal line, if we all do our jobs, they won't get in. For us to stand up like that, it is just a testament of what we've been through and how much trust we had all year with each other. To me that was one of the most amazing goal-line stands I've ever been a part of in my career. What better way to do it than on the Super Bowl stage?''
Make no mistake, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was deservedly the game's MVP, and receivers Anquan Boldin (six catches for 104 yards and a touchdown) and Jacoby Jones (a 56-yard touchdown catch and a Super Bowl record 108-yard kickoff return score) had the next most to do with Baltimore being fitted for rings this year. But Lewis is a compass of sorts for the Ravens, and he helped lead them in the right direction this postseason when the opportunity for something special surprisingly presented itself.
He's not the most valuable Raven any more -- remember, he won the game's MVP award when Baltimore won the Super Bowl 12 years ago -- but he did offer real value to his believing team as it climbed every step of the NFL's playoff ladder in the past five weeks. He didn't make any truly big plays, and bunches of his tackles were well past the line of scrimmage, but Lewis motivated the Ravens in ways only he seems to be able to. Silly dance or pre-game pep rallies aside, Lewis has a standing that the rest of the Ravens respect, and that gives him a sense of authority to set Baltimore's agenda.
"It's pretty cool,'' said Flacco, in his typical understatement. "Ray's a great person and everyone knows he's an unbelievable football player. But he's the best teammate. It's unbelievable to send him out like this. The reason for that is, he just wanted us all to feel what it feels like to win this thing. He's felt it, and of course he wanted to feel it again. He really wanted us to feel that and we all made it happen today.''
The Ravens made it happen the same way they've always done things. Without any sense of ease. It was a difficult slog, but that's the way it's done in Baltimore, said Flacco.
"It's fitting we won that way,'' he said. "We are a tough, blue-collar city and that's the way our games kind of come down. We were up 28-6 and I'm sure a lot of people were nervous, but were kind of like 'This one might be pretty easy.' And the next thing you know, the Niners get right back into it and play great football and we had to grind it out.''
Or as Ravens safety Ed Reed put it: "The game was a replay of the whole year. Started good, got ugly, but ended great. It ended great.''
Yes, it did, and so it ends great for Lewis, too. Like John Elway, Jerome Bettis and Michael Strahan, he leaves the game with the sheen of ultimate victory. It's nice little club to join if you can swing it.
"What better way to go out?'' Lewis said. "More importantly, it was my teammates in the way I went out -- the things we've been through all year. I was tested through this journey. It was an up-and-down rollercoaster, with the injuries, and we stayed together. And now, I get to ride off into the sunset with my second ring. Honestly, when God is for you, who can be against you?''
Having God on your side can't hurt, but it was Flacco and Reed and longtime teammates like linebacker Terrell Suggs who helped make this final victory lap happen for Lewis. He provided the message and the mindset, and they did most of the heavy lifting in the playoffs. Whatever works. As long as you win.
"I told him I love him, and what better way to show your gratitude to your leader of 17 years,'' said Suggs, when asked what he told Lewis after the victory was assured. "He's been my teammate and brother for 10 years and really mentored me. Not just in football, but in life. I'm glad to send him out right.''
The Ravens didn't do this just for Ray. But they did it with him. And that seemed to matter greatly to them, and make all the difference. Just maybe, Baltimore wouldn't have been able to do it at all without having the goal of making Lewis's storybook finish come true. Like him or loathe him, Lewis was a big part of the Ravens' Super Bowl journey. You have to admit, last rides seldom lead to such memorable and fulfilling final destinations.