BALTIMORE — Usually several thousand seats remain empty when players are introduced 10 minutes before kickoff of NFL games.
Not Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
Every inch of available space was seemingly occupied. On the sideline, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell decided he didn’t have a good enough view and inched closer to the tunnel from which the Baltimore Ravens would emerge — or, more specifically, the tunnel from which Ray Lewis would enter for the final time as a player.
There are more opinions on Ray Lewis than there were fans in the stands wearing purple No. 52 jerseys Sunday. But there is no doubting one thing: No one has ever made a pregame entrance the way Lewis has for 17 seasons. If he wasn’t one of the great linebackers in history, the pregame dance would have been mocked as nothing more than showboating. But because he backed up the dance all those years with extraordinary play, it has become the stuff of lore, especially here in a town that will always adore him.
Lewis was hardly spectacular in the Ravens’ 24-9 first-round playoff victory over the Indianapolis Colts. But there is no doubting that his presence — as always — had an effect on his team.
“We just wanted to make sure this wasn’t his last game,” wide receiver Anquan Boldin said. “I think the emotion of it hit us all before the game. Especially when he came out of the tunnel for the last time.”
As Coach John Harbaugh pointed out, emotions are fine before a big game but they can’t carry you for 60 minutes. Even though virtually all of the Colts could be seen watching the video board while Lewis did his trademark dance, there wasn’t much doubt they couldn’t have cared less about what this day meant to Lewis, meant to the Ravens and meant to Baltimore.
They have ridden a difficult rollercoaster since Coach Chuck Pagano, a former Ravens assistant, got a leukemia diagnosis in the third week of the season. Somehow they pieced together an 11-5 season led by interim coach Bruce Arians (who got sick boarding the team bus Sunday morning and spent the day in a Baltimore hospital) and by their remarkable rookie quarterback Andrew Luck.
All of that said, this was Lewis’s day — it had to be. Quarterback Joe Flacco played extremely well, as did his offensive line. Boldin made several spectacular catches, and running back Bernard Pierce did a wonderful job in relief after Ray Rice uncharacteristically fumbled twice. The defense didn’t allow the Colts into the end zone.
“Oh yeah, in other news,” Harbaugh said laughing when asked about linebacker Paul Kruger’s superb game. “I’m glad someone asked about it.”
In one very important sense, Sunday was about a Ravens team that lost four of its last five games and stumbled into the playoffs full of question marks. It answered many of those questions against the Colts and now will face even bigger and more difficult ones against a Denver team that has won 11 straight games and routed the Ravens several weeks ago here in Baltimore. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is 9-2 in his career against Baltimore, the two losses coming when he was first breaking into the league about 100 years ago.
Those concerns start Monday, though. Sunday was about Lewis. It was about saying goodbye and getting to do it on his terms. His announcement this past week that he would retire at season’s end may have been a surprise to many because of the timing, but to those who know Lewis, it was almost predictable.
Lewis, 37, has always had a sense of the moment. He always seems to make his most spectacular plays at critical junctures, and play his best games when the entire football world is watching. As great as he is, he also has been a masterful performer, someone who has always reveled in the attention.
“Being a performer is part of what I do,” he said several years ago. “I understand that. I enjoy it, and I also like to think it helps my team play well because most of the time my teammates enjoy it.”
They did — especially knowing once the dancing and chest-pounding was over, no one was going to be more ready to play than Lewis. That’s why they were like everyone else when it was finally Lewis’s time to come out of the tunnel, crowding as close as they could to be part of the moment.
“I was kind of standing out there at the back, and I noticed none of the defensive guys were coming out [onto the field] to get high-fives like they usually do,” Flacco said. “Then I saw them crowding around the tunnel and I figured I better get closer.” He smiled. “I told my wife last night to bring a video camera. She said, ‘I’m not going to do that; I can’t bring it in to the stadium.’ I told her to stick it in a bag. I hope she did it.”
There were moments when Lewis didn’t quite make plays he would have made once upon a time. A pass deflected by Haloti Ngata almost landed in his lap — and he dropped it.
“I blame that one on the brace” protecting his injured triceps, Lewis said, smiling. “I couldn’t extend my arm.”
There were a couple of passes just out of his reach that he would have gotten a hand on once upon a time. But in the end he made nine tackles and assisted on four others — not bad for an old man who hadn’t played since Oct. 14.
In the final seconds, Harbaugh, showing a sense of the dramatic, put him in for the final play — with the offense in victory formation.
“I always wanted to do that,” Lewis said. “But I never had the nerve to ask.”
Harbaugh said a higher power inspired him to put Lewis into the game, which was also apt, given Lewis’s devoutness.
No one had left the stadium early when the clock hit zero, and Lewis disappointed no one, taking a final victory lap — a la Cal Ripken right across the street more than 17 years ago — to say goodbye, clearly wanting to stay on the field for as long as possible.
An hour later, he slowly pulled his suit coat on and reached into his locker for his glasses. There is at least one more game to play, but a few minutes later, as Lewis left the building for the final time as a player, he clearly understood that it was time to go home.
For previous columns by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.