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BALTIMORE — As the roaring lungs and stomping feet of 71,379 fans had M&T Bank Stadium pulsating with energy early in the fourth quarter Sunday, Ravens star pass rusher Terrell Suggs felt an equally intense throbbing in his surgically repaired right heel.
With the home team protecting an eight-point lead against an Indianapolis Colts offense that had yet to reach the end zone, Suggs briefly considered heading to the sidelines. Just as quickly, "T-Sizzle," whose mere presence in the Ravens' lineup is considered somewhat of a, minor medical miracle, bit his lip and rejected the possibility.
On this emotional, ceremonial and utterly surreal afternoon, leaving was not an option.
"My Achilles started acting up, and it felt pretty bad, but I was like, '[Expletive] that,' " Suggs said shortly after the Ravens had closed out a 24-9 AFC wild-card victory over the franchise that formerly played in Baltimore. "I wasn't going to let a repaired tendon steal our glory. We had work to do. We're trying to win a championship. And we had to make sure we did this for him him."
As he stood at his locker covered only in sweat, Suggs gestured to the person undressing next to him: Ray Lewis, the greatest player in Ravens history and the unequivocal man of the moment. In what would be the linebacker's final game in the stadium that has fed off his energy throughout the decade-and-a-half of its existence, Lewis' triumphant return from a torn right triceps injury helped propel Baltimore into a divisional-round clash with the top-seeded Denver Broncos next Sunday at Invesco Field at Mile High
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Last Wednesday, when Lewis told teammates that his 17th NFL season would represent his "last ride" on a football journey that will end in Canton, Ohio, it provoked a new sense of purpose in a locker room reeling from a late-season swoon. To Suggs and the rest of the Ravens, who lost four of their final five regular season games after a 9-2 start, the only way to give their beloved leader the sendoff he deserves is to win Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans next month.
First, however, they had to ensure that Lewis would go out a winner in the city he calls home. And as has been the case so often during the franchise's history, Baltimore's defense did the heavy lifting. After a regular season in which the Ravens ranked just 17th in the league in yards allowed, they limited the Colts to three Adam Vinatieri field goals and forced a pair of turnovers.
After an inspirational regular season that included the extended absence of head coach Chuck Pagano, who returned less than two weeks ago after having undergone treatment for leukemia, Indy was saddled with more adversity Sunday. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who went 9-3 as the interim coach while Pagano was away from the team, missed the game after being hospitalized in Baltimore with an undisclosed illness. Quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen took over play-calling duties for the Colts, who were besieged with the roars of fired up Ravens fans insistent upon sending off their hero in style.
Lewis, who in his first game in nearly three months led the Ravens with 13 tackles, dropped a potential interception early in the second quarter, a gaffe he blamed on the large brace that kept his right arm from fully extending. Yet his cagey, hyper-intense presence in the middle of the Baltimore defense helped stabilize the unit and convince Lewis that the Ravens can fare better against fellow future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning and the Broncos next Sunday than they did in a 34-17 defeat in Baltimore last month.
"As men, we made a commitment to each other, and that is to next week head to Denver and get a win," Lewis told reporters during his packed postgame news conference. "So, I just think for me and [Manning] back colliding … it's not about me and Peyton. It's about their team against our team. I just like our team. I love our team right now, and I am really looking forward to going out there and playing them next week."
Whatever happens against the Broncos, Lewis will always have the magical memory of Sunday's Baltimore swan song. It played out passionately and splendidly, from Lewis' trademark just-outside-the-tunnel pep talk, to his smoke-laden, Hot In Herre-blaring, trademark-strutting introduction, to some game-ending surprises: His insertion as the fullback for the Ravens' clock-killing kneeldown (after which he reprised the dance) to a teary-eyed victory lap around the still-half-filled stadium more than 10 minutes after time expired.
Following the Ravens' practice last Friday, as he prepared to leave the team's training facility in Owings Mills, Md., wide receiver Anquan Boldin made it clear that honoring Lewis' impending retirement was part of the Ravens' collective mission.
"We want to make his last ride memorable," Boldin said. "[His announcement] gave us added incentive — and we're a team that already had a lot to play for."
On Sunday, the Ravens played for Ray and with Ray, and they got the job done. The mission continues next Saturday, but whatever goes down in Denver, the great linebacker's last game in Baltimore couldn't have been more satisfying.
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