BY BOB GLAUBER
Inside the losers’ locker room, Ray Lewis gathered his teammates around him, some of them close to tears. The Ravens had just lost to the Patriots, 23-20, in last year’s AFC Championship Game when Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field-goal attempt in the final seconds, two plays after Lee Evans failed to hold on to a pass in the end zone.
For 62 seconds, Lewis implored the men around him to take the lessons of the loss and not be disheartened by them, but be inspired.
“God has never made a mistake, it ain’t about one play. It ain’t about nothin’!” Lewis said. “This year, we did what we were supposed to do. We fought as a team. The fact is, we gotta come back and go to work to make sure we finish it next time. That’s all we gotta do.”
‘Stronger as a team’
Turning to quarterback Joe Flacco, who had played well enough to win, Lewis said, “Joe, you played your – – – off! You hear me, man? I’m telling you, man, don’t ever — don’t ever! — drop your head when it comes to a loss, dog, because there’s too much pain outside of this that people are really going through
Lewis finished by looking ahead to the 2012 season.
“This right here makes us stronger,” he said. “Let’s understand who we are as a team, let’s understand who we are as men, and let’s make somebody smile when we walk out of here. We got the opportunity to keep going, men. Let’s be stronger as a team, men. Let’s be who we are.”
A year later, Lewis stood in the same locker room after the Ravens finally had broken through against the host Patriots. The 28-13 upset sent the Ravens to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2000 season, when Lewis led them to their only championship with a 34-7 win over the Giants.
“That moment, that conversation with my team, I was just telling them that … it wasn’t no dropped pass, it wasn’t no field goal,” Lewis said Sunday night.
“Starting with last year’s loss here and then rebuilding as a team and coming in and having one of the best training camps ever, I can say, just because everyone believed in each other. It’s just so special. It’s so special to be here right now.”
So special because these playoffs are as much about Lewis as they are about the Ravens’ smashing run in the postseason.
They are about Flacco’s unflappable performance, yes, and about Ray Rice’s running and about a defense that somehow has managed to patch together enough stops despite injuries to key players such as Terrell Suggs, who missed most of the season with an Achilles injury, and Lewis himself, who suffered a torn triceps in mid-October and didn’t return until the playoffs.
But before he did come back, Lewis — the face of this franchise since 1996, his first season and the team’s first in Baltimore — announced it would be his last run in a Ravens uniform. Whenever the Ravens finished the playoffs that would be it. And look at him now: one step from a storybook finish that only a handful of NFL stars get to experience.
“Ray Lewis has done so much for this team and for Baltimore,” defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. “For us to help him get to the Super Bowl for his retirement is an amazing feeling. I’m just happy to be on his team and this time.”
It is a decidedly different backdrop to Lewis’ Super Bowl run than the last. Twelve years ago, when he was about to face the Giants, Lewis dealt with questions and intense criticism about his involvement in a double murder outside a nightclub in Atlanta in January 2000.
Lewis and two acquaintances initially were charged with murder, but the linebacker eventually pleaded to a misdemeanor obstruction of justice charge, was placed on probation and fined $250,000 by commissioner Paul Tagliabue for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.