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Ray Lewis: I didn't return for Baltimore Ravens to lose

The first reaction was disbelief. Ray Lewiscan't retire from the Baltimore Ravens. Ray Lewisis the Baltimore Ravens.

"I don't believe it," NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders said.

"I can't picture Baltimore without him," Ravens running back Ray Rice said.

This is not your normal retirement announcement. NFL Network interrupted regularly scheduled programming to cover Lewis' retirement live and get reaction from football legends around the country. Ravens teammates and coach John Harbaugh watched off camera as the scene unfolded.

Lewis is one of those guys. There are just a few players in every generation who change the game. Lewis built such status through 17 years of frenzied play, including 12 Pro Bowl invites. But it's Lewis' role as a leader of men, as a cerebral tactician, as the ultimate combination of emotion and intelligence at the linebacker position that set him apart.

Lewis timed the news Wednesday to inspire one final time. It's tempting to write about Lewis' legacy already, but there are games left to be played. Lewis is expected to return from injury and play in Sunday's AFC Wild Card Game against the Indianapolis Colts.

"That's one thing I shared with them," Lewis told reporters about his talk with teammates Wednesday. "I said, 'I'm going to give you everything that I got because this is our last one. And wherever it ends, I didn't come back for it to end in the first round.' "

Little is expected of this Ravens squad after a discouraging end to the season. The defense is banged up and has not lived up to old standards. The offense was bad enough to get its coordinator fired in December.

But the talent level in Baltimore really is no different than a season ago, when the Ravens were one play away from the Super Bowl. This a veteran squad. Lewis knows his influence over teammates. They will be playing to extend his run.

With most players, we'd chalk that up to to overrated motivational media talk that doesn't change what happens on the field. But Lewis isn't most players. He's one of the greatest leaders in NFL history, ready to inspire one last time. We aren't ruling anything out.

Ray Lewis is just one those guys.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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