NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Before he could bask in a shower of confetti, before he could put his fingerprints on the Lombardi Trophy and before he could head into retirement as a champion, Ray Lewis had one final task: stop the San Francisco 49ers on three plays 5 yards from the end zone.
After two passes went awry, Lewis charged up the middle on a blitz. The Ravens stellar linebacker never made it to Colin Kaepernick, but after the quarterback’s pass flew out of bounds, Lewis and Baltimore could begin to celebrate.
“How could it end any other way than that?” Lewis said. “And now I get to ride into the sunset with my second ring.”
The 13-time Pro Bowl star began his final night on the football field with a motivational speech to his teammates. He ended it looking upward into a waterfall of silver streamers and purple confetti after the Ravens beat San Francisco 34-31 Sunday night to win the Super Bowl.
“It’s simple: When God is for you, who can be against you?” Lewis said, clutching the Lombardi Trophy. “It’s no greater way, as a champ, to go out on your last ride with the men that I went out with, with my teammates. And you looked around this stadium and … Baltimore! Baltimore! We coming home, baby! We did it!”
Standing tall in the middle of a defense that survived a frenzied comeback by Kaepernick and the 49ers, Lewis put a lovely bow on his 17th NFL season by earning another Super Bowl ring to go with the one he received 12 years earlier.
When Lewis first led Baltimore to Super Bowl glory, he was a 25-year-old at the height of his game. A terror on the best defense in the league, Lewis was voted MVP after the Ravens beat the New York Giants 34-7 to earn their first championship.
On Sunday night, Lewis and his defense played a supporting role to Joe Flacco and the offense.
The 37-year-old Lewis finished with seven tackles and sometimes struggled to cover receivers venturing into his area. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree caught a 19-yarder on San Francisco’s second series, and tight end Vernon Davis eluded Lewis twice before making second-quarter catches.
Lewis did, however, make two tackles during the 49ers’ final drive.
“The final series of Ray Lewis’ career was a goal-line stand to win the Lombardi Trophy,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “It was not perfect. It was not pretty. But it was us. That is who we are.”
After amassing a team-high 44 tackles in Baltimore’s first three playoff wins, Lewis was anything but exceptional against the 49ers. But the Ravens played like champions around him, and now Lewis can saunter into the sunset after again holding the Lombardi Trophy high.
“I told him I love him,” Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “What better way to show your gratitude to your leader for 17 years? He’s mentored me, not just in football, but in life.”
While working his way back from a torn right triceps that had kept him sidelined since Oct. 14, Lewis told high-ranking team officials that he was going to retire after this season. He shared the news with his teammates and the media on Jan. 2, saying Baltimore’s postseason run would be his “last ride.”
And what a journey it was.
After defeating Indianapolis at home to open the playoffs, the Ravens beat top-seeded Denver on the road and knocked off second-seeded New England. Then, underdogs again in the Super Bowl, Baltimore blew most of a 22-point lead in the second half before mounting one final defensive stop.
“To me, that was one of the most amazing goal-line stands I’ve ever been a part of in my career,” Lewis said. “What better way to do it than on the Super Bowl stage?”
The Ravens didn’t necessarily win for Lewis, but they sure felt good about sending him into retirement with a world championship.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco, who threw for three touchdowns. “Ray’s a great person and everyone knows he’s an unbelievable player, but he’s the best teammate. It’s unbelievable to send him out like this.”
Lewis’ old buddy, 34-year-old Ed Reed, contributed a first-half interception. Jacoby Jones scored two touchdowns, and after the second — a 108-yard kickoff return to open the third quarter — he saluted his retiring teammate with a rendition of the “squirrel” dance Lewis made famous.
Days earlier, Lewis was confronted about his use of deer antler spray in his effort to return from the triceps injury. He vehemently denied trying the banned substance, and that sideshow fizzled out quickly enough so that it was not a distraction on Sunday.
The Ravens will have another middle linebacker next season, but they will never have another Ray Lewis. Harbaugh was asked why the team responded so passionately to him and his effort to go out on top.
“If you’re going to talk about the Ray thing, you want to ask about it, then the answer’s got to be faith,” Harbaugh said. “I mean Ray is driven by spirituality and faith and that’s what he draws on and that’s where his strength comes from. So if you really want to know, I mean that’s what he’s tapping into and that’s what makes it so beautiful and so perfect.”
Lewis was the second draft pick in Ravens’ history, following Jonathan Ogden in 1996. Ogden, who was elected into the NFL Hall of Fame on Saturday, waved to his former teammate during the pregame coin flip Sunday.
Perhaps one day, Ogden will extend the same greeting to Lewis in Canton, Ohio.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.