FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - A trip to New Orleans seemed like a fantasy or a pipe dream.
Linebacker Ray Lewis came back from what many assumed was a season-ending - and perhaps career-ending - triceps injury to make one final championship run with the Ravens before riding off into the sunset of football commentating and watching his sons play the game.
And now, Lewis' last game will be the Super Bowl.
Win or lose, you can't draw it up much better, and several Ravens said beating the Patriots in the AFC championship meant that much more because it extends Lewis' career one more week.
"It definitely does," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "Ray Lewis has done so much for this team and for Baltimore. For us to help him get to the Super Bowl for his retirement is an amazing feeling. You know, I'm just happy to be on his team at this time. We're going to the Super Bowl."
Lewis feels honored that many of his teammates have used the impending retirement as inspiration for the Ravens' unlikely postseason run.
"It's the greatest respect you can ever ask for," he said. "You walk in your locker room - you walk in and sometimes the hardest thing for me to do - I just try to live a humble life. It's hard because sometimes you walk in the locker room and everybody wants something from you.
"I'm willing to give everything back to them. Everything, no matter if it's leadership, if it's teaching them, 'Don't make the same mistakes I made in life. Learn from my mistakes.' And just the beautiful conversations that we've had every Saturday night - I sit there and I talk to my team and I talk to different players just about what I used to be when I was in my 20s and what God has brought me from (to) now.
"And to spread that knowledge and see the changes. To watch a Terrell Suggs grow up right before my eyes. To watch Ed Reed grow up right before my eyes. And Ray Rice. It's the ultimate respect. It's why you play the game. I've always said that when you leave your legacy, what will your legacy be? And to hear men tell you they love you, to hear men tell you they respect the life that you live, it's the ultimate."
Lewis' career has followed a fascinating arc, as he emerged as a star before being implicated in a 2000 murder and eventually having charges dropped in favor of obstruction of justice charges. And from there, he led the Ravens to the following year's Super Bowl, won back the fans by being a model citizen and put together one of the greatest careers in NFL history.
And coach John Harbaugh couldn't be prouder that the end of Lewis' ride has played out like this.
"I'm just feeling an incredible amount of awe," Harbaugh said. "Ray would be the first to tell you this, so I'm just going to share it: awe in the work that God can do in one man's life. To me, Ray's the epitome of that. Ray's a guy that has turned everything over. He's surrendered everything and he's become the man that he is to this day.
"He's a different man than he was when he was 22 or 15 or whatever. I think everybody sees that right now. I think it's a great thing for kids to see. It's a great thing for fathers to see. It's a great thing for fathers to see. It's a great thing for athletes to see. It's a very special deal."