FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- As his last ride continues to charter a magic carpet, Ray Lewis wonders aloud: "How else do you cap off a career?"
"This is our time," Lewis said. "This is our time."
It's been a heck of a month, beginning with his return from a torn triceps that very well could have ended his career. In his final game in Baltimore, the Ravens celebrated "The Return of Festivus" -- their code word for the playoffs -- while Lewis vowed he had no intention of battling back from injury to be "one and done" in the postseason.
No, a mere playoff appearance wouldn't have seemed right.
Instead, this has been Hollywood stuff. Lewis has led the Ravens in tackles -- his 44 postseason stops also pace the NFL -- in all three playoff games, dispatching the Indianapolis Colts, Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos and, Sunday, the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady New England Patriots. What a last ride.
"I can only tell you," Lewis said, "I'm along for the ride."
Three weeks ago, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs made it no secret that if this is, indeed, the end for Lewis, their only mission was to end it in New Orleans. So here we are. Ray Lewis, the only remaining Raven from Super Bowl XXXV, is back in the Super Bowl. His story might not overshadow the Harbaugh Bowl, but how many individual storylines could?
(An aside: When asked Sunday night what his father Jack was likely thinking after the Ravens' win -- with John joining Jim's San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl -- John Harbaugh said, "I hope he's on his fourth or fifth beer right now." Terrific. No, nothing will trump the Harbaughs over the next two weeks.)
But Lewis' story looms larger than the rest. He has eclipsed Joe Flacco's remarkable rise -- who throws a better deep ball? -- and historic ability to win on the road in the postseason. And, while we're at it, how many quarterbacks have been more clutch in a contract year? On the field after beating the Patriots and outplaying Brady, Flacco deflected personal acclaim. "I don't care (what it says about me)," he said. "It says we have a pretty good football team."
Enter, or reenter, Lewis. He is entirely comfortable as the only shadow cast from the spotlight. His favorite pronouns are I, me and my. This is, he will tell you, his team, his locker room. And it's hard to argue.
"His work ethic, man, everything he brings to this organization has been amazing," Reed said. "His leadership is like no other that I've been around. It's just been awesome, bro."
Ray Rice lockers next to Lewis at the team's Owings Mills, Md., training facility. The two will sit on stools, as the rest of the locker room buzzes around them, in deep conversation.
"Coaches put us in a great position, but we as players decided we were going to get the job done," Rice said Sunday night. "When you got a guy you love next to you and you put it on the line for him, good things happen."
When cornerback Cary Williams intercepted Brady's last pass in the AFC Championship Game, sealing the 28-13 victory, he gave the ball to Lewis. Perhaps fellow cornerback Corey Graham best summarized this team's collective feeling regarding Lewis: "You don't want to be the guy to let him down."
Lewis might be the very definition of polarizing figure. He has a chance to exit stage left in the most celebrated of fashions, as a champion. John Elway, Michael Strahan and Jerome Bettis have paved this road.
But with Lewis, there always will remain the tragic mess of a double murder in 2000 in Atlanta, the Super Bowl site. For the families involved, time does not heal. The most serious charges against Lewis were dropped; he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.
Sunday night, Lewis stood at a podium. Twelve years later, he returns to the Super Bowl, seemingly a different man. He said he tells teammates, "Don't make the same mistakes I made in life. Learn from my mistakes." And he went further: "I talk to my team and I talk to different players about what I used to be when I was in my 20s, and what God has brought me from (to) now."
However you explain the journey, it is nearly complete for Ray Lewis. He provokes, he inspires, he tackles. He wins football games. As far as legacies go, maybe that should be enough.