Ray Lewis relishes his finale in Baltimore

Ray Lewis has been the iconic symbol of Baltimore football since the Ravens came to the city in 1996, so Sunday marked an emotional end of a 17-year era.

Lewis’ farewell to Baltimore started with a dance and ended with a Cal Ripken-esque victory lap. In the middle, the future Hall of Fame linebacker helped his team to a 24-9 victory over the Colts in his final game at M&T Bank Stadium.

While the Ravens move on to face the Broncos next weekend, Sunday’s wild card match-up will be their last home game of the playoffs, no matter how far they advance.

The day was filled with tributes and lasts, only one of which was planned by Lewis - his pregame “squirrel” dance. Everything else was in the moment, including his jog around the field pointing and waving to the fans still in their seats.

“I had nothing planned today at all. My total focus was to come here and play my heart out and give my team a win, and everything else just came with it,” Lewis said. “There’s probably no greater moment than seeing my kids, my mom, my dad, my family right there in the end of the end zone. That was probably when I lost it emotionally because I knew that’s the thing I’ve always done, it’s always been for them.

“I knew how it started, but I never knew how it was going to end in Baltimore. So for it to go the way it went today, I wouldn’t change nothing. There were so many moments today, so many fans. Just the things that were said and the tears that I was seeing from people and I’m trying to hold it in myself because I’m trying to play a game, but just a very, very, very emotional day.”

The stadium filled up well before kickoff, with fans’ eyes on Lewis during warm-ups and then eagerly awaiting his final emergence from the tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium.

His teammates drew even closer to be a part of his “Hot in Herre” gyrations, and the crowd erupted as he was introduced to them one last time. Even coach John Harbaugh’s attention was on that tunnel.

Wideout Anquan Boldin said that was when the emotions hit hardest.

“I’m sure anybody who was in the stadium, especially with him coming out of the tunnel for the last time in this stadium, I’m sure everyone was affected by it,” Boldin said. “We all wanted to play well for him and make sure it wasn’t his last game.”

The Ravens accomplished that with Lewis playing more than an intangible role in his first game since Oct. 14.

Playing with a protective brace over his surgically repaired right triceps, the 37-year-old led Baltimore with 13 tackles, including nine solo and one for loss, while adding one pass defended. That pass could’ve, and perhaps should’ve, been picked off. Lewis jokingly blamed the brace.

Harbaugh was pleased with the way Lewis played.

“It seems like he played really well. I thought he played exceptionally well,” Harbaugh said. “I’ll have to look at the tape and see the nuances of that, but he’s been working really hard. We talked about his rehab and just the kind of man he is. I thought he really played well. He’s a heck of a football player.

“It’s always so funny to hear people say, ‘Well, he’s not the same that he was 10 years ago.’ Well, who is? None of us, but he’s found different ways to play the game and play it so well. He’s still a great football player.”

Lewis also was happy with the fact that he was in position to play the full game after pushing himself back from what many projected to be a season-ending injury in less than three months.

“I’ve been training so hard,” he said. “Everything that I’ve done since I’ve been hurt has been to be back with team, to be back clicking on all cylinders, not come back and have to go in and come back out. I’ve never played my career like that, so I was totally ahead of the game.”

At the end of the game, Harbaugh inserted Lewis on offense for the Ravens’ last kneel-down to run out the clock. It was Lewis’ first offensive play since high school.

And once quarterback Joe Flacco took the snap, Lewis began dancing one more time, as players and coaches from both teams, as well as photographers, surrounded him.

“I’ve always wanted to do that play,” Lewis said. “I just never was bold enough to to a coordinator and say, ‘Coach, let me do that last play.’

“It was just fun, and it was really a big congratulations to our fans more than anything. That’s probably why I was so excited about doing it.”

After a relationship that spanned nearly two decades, this was the final time Lewis would take the turf in front of his home fans.

They honored him by ending the day with chants of “Thank you, Ray,” and “We want Ray.”

Lewis admitted it hadn’t yet hit him that he won’t play in Baltimore again, and he hopes it doesn’t for some time.

“It probably won’t sink in,” he said. “The reason why it probably won’t is because it’s probably the last thing on my mind right now. Seriously, because the next thing on my mind is, as a team, we are poised to go do something.

“Whenever the road stops ... As men, we made a commitment to each other, and that is to next week head to Denver and get a win.”