By DAVID GINSBURG
BALTIMORE — There’s no telling how effective Ray Lewis will be today (8 a.m., CBS) against the Indianapolis Colts after missing 12 weeks with a torn right triceps.
Fortunately, for the Ravens, he’s already provided an emotional lift.
With his announcement that he will step into retirement after Baltimore completes its 2013 playoff run, Lewis gave the slumping Ravens a boost heading into their wild-card game.
“Just having him back on the field is an inspiration,” Baltimore defensive coordinator Dean Pees said.
There are plenty of engaging story lines for this game, which pits Baltimore’s current NFL team against the one that left the city in a caravan of moving vans during a March 1984 snowstorm. The matchup features the return of Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, who served as the Ravens’ defensive coordinator last year and is back on the sideline after being treated for leukemia.
What’s more, Baltimore offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell was head coach at Indianapolis for three seasons, culminating his up-and-down run with last year’s 2-14 debacle. There’s also the Ravens’ playoff experience — this is their fifth straight trip under coach John Harbaugh — against a young Colts team that has 28 players making their postseason debut.
But nothing is more noteworthy than the pending retirement of the 37-year-old Lewis, who has been Baltimore’s starting middle linebacker for 17 years, or as long as the Ravens have been the Ravens.
On Sunday, the aged warrior will don his gear inside his home arena for perhaps one last time. Lewis will then emerge from the tunnel to perform his ceremonial dance, gyrating to the tune of Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” for the fervent, appreciative crowd.
“That’s when it’s going to hit me the most,” Ravens running back Ray Rice said. “That’s when I think it’s going to hit the city of Baltimore the most, that it could possibly be the last time coming through that tunnel. The emotions are going to be too rough to even think about, because Baltimore is Ray Lewis, and when he comes out of that tunnel, everybody is electrified.”
Lewis has always had an impeccable sense of timing, and his calculated announcement served as a perfect example of that trait. Baltimore (10-6) needed a boost after going 1-4 in December, and Lewis provided it Wednesday by telling his teammates “this would be my last ride.”
“He never talks about individual awards and accolades. He always talks about trying to get another trophy, another Lombardi,” wide receiver Torrey Smith said. “We’re one of 12 teams that have an opportunity to go out there and get it, and we want to send him out the right way.”
Pagano said, “Whether he announced his retirement or not, just having Ray back, having his presence on the football field, they have their leader back. That’s going to give any team an extra edge or spark.”
Pagano has been a similar source of inspiration for the Colts (11-5). He laid the groundwork for their comeback season during the summer, left after three games to receive treatment for leukemia and returned last week to guide Indianapolis to a 28-16 win over the Houston Texans.
Now he returns to Baltimore, with no small measure of emotion.
“It’s going to be special,” Pagano said. “I have great relationships with so many people in that organization. They were so good to me and my family. I wouldn’t be sitting where I’m at today if John Harbaugh hadn’t given me the opportunity to join him when he was first hired as a head football coach there.”
The Colts have the better record and more momentum, having won five of six and nine of 11. Baltimore has playoff experience and the home-field advantage; as AFC North champions the Ravens get to play at home, where they’ve won 33 of 40 since the start of the 2008 season.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has been to the playoffs in each of his five NFL seasons. He’s won at least once in every postseason and twice has taken the Ravens to the AFC title game.
The Colts, on the other hand, will be sending top draft pick Andrew Luck up against Lewis and a defense that has a reputation for bullying rookie quarterbacks. Luck put up some impressive numbers in his first 16 NFL games, throwing for 300 yards on six occasions and running for five scores. But this will be his first foray in a win-or-go-home format.
“Hopefully, we can just try to make him look a rookie out there instead of a veteran quarterback,” Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said.
Luck played in the Orange Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl with Stanford, but this will be a decidedly different situation.
“It’s uncharted territory for me,” Luck acknowledged. “It definitely has a different feel than a bowl game, because this isn’t what any of the teams want as an end prize, to win the first one.”
That’s the way Lewis feels, too. He didn’t work tirelessly for three months to return from his injury just to do his dance, make a few tackles, shower and head into retirement. He’s in it to add another Super Bowl ring to the one he earned after the 2000 season.
“Do I have four football games left in me? Yes, I have way more than that,” Lewis said. “I just had to make a decision to cut it off at four.”
The only way the Ravens will return home this postseason is if they win twice and the No. 5 seed Cincinnati Bengals also make it to the AFC title game. Barring that unforeseen scenario, this will be Lewis’ final dance in Baltimore.
“It’s going to be one hard last ride,” Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said, “and we need to make it one to remember.”