NEW ORLEANS -- Fittingly, it came down to defense for the Baltimore Ravens. A goal-line stand that would define their season as champions -- or not -- and serve as the final stamp on Ray Lewis' 17-year career.
Who's been writing this script?
"Our team," Lewis would say later, after the confetti settled, "is built on true men, true leaders, true winners."
Talk about a last ride.
"Baltimore, we coming home, baby!" Lewis said. "We did it!"
Leading 34-29 on Sunday night, the Ravens stoned Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers, who had a first-and-goal from Baltimore's 7-yard line with 2:39 to play. After a 2-yard run by LaMichael James on first down, Kaepernick tried -- and failed -- to connect with Michael Crabtree on three successive plays.
Joe Flacco was the deserving MVP of the game. The quarterback punctuated these playoffs with his calm demeanor, his clutch play and a downfield cannon that is the best in football. His remarkable final playoff numbers: 11 touchdown passes, zero interceptions.
As much as Baltimore's future is tied to Flacco, a pending free agent who will undoubtedly get a new deal and remain a Raven, the theme of these playoffs was dominated by Lewis. On Jan. 2, Lewis told his teammates that this would be his "last ride." On Sunday night, the final snaps of his career were season-defining nail-biters.
"You know, honestly, the most exciting thing ever was the conversations that we were having at the goal line," Lewis said. "Nobody ever panicked -- everybody looked at each other and there was no panic."
When Kaepernick's final pass fell incomplete, Lewis sprawled on the turf of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, a world champion for the second time, surrounded by teammates tasting their first title.
"For us to stand up like that, it is just a testament of what we've been (through) and how much trust we had all year with each other," Lewis said. "To me, that was one of the most amazing goal-line stands I've ever been a part of in my career. What better way to do it than on the Super Bowl stage?"
In the end, the 49ers might have done the Baltimore defense a favor by attempting three consecutive passes. Anticipating a run from Kaepernick, Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees brought pressure on every down. As linebacker Terrell Suggs said, "The kid is a phenomenal quarterback, and we weren't going to let him bring (it) in there. We were going to make him do it with his arm."
The Baltimore defense, in those moments, was just a little bit better than the second-year signal-caller.
"I do not know if I have words for it," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I think it just speaks to our resolve. Speaks to our determination. Speaks to our mental toughness. Speaks to our faith and trust in one another and our belief in one another. That is what wins and loses games."
And it is what caps a remarkable career. To be sure, Lewis leaves a complicated legacy. As polarizing a figure as exists in sports, the linebacker is either loved or loathed -- there is little middle ground. In his locker room, he inspired teammates, particularly those on the defensive side of the ball, until the end.
As his football career ends, Lewis said, his life begins. He was joined at the postgame podium by two of his young sons. Lewis said he now has the opportunity to see "a different side" of life.
Over the past month, the Ravens penned an improbable story. After defeating Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, they beat long odds on the road by getting past Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, then Tom Brady's New England Patriots.
These Ravens never arrived -- or left -- quietly. They were loud, bold, brash and, in the end, ultimate winners.
"This last ride, for whatever ups and downs, (we) figured it out," Lewis said. "That is the beauty of true champions."
Follow Kimberly Jones on Twitter @KimJonesSports.