Even though Ray Lewis!(/team/roster/ray-lewis/1c6d5ed3-fe49-4a89-a6b5-9e358e906ae7/ "Ray Lewis") spent the past 13 years as one of the most feared and revered linebackers in the NFL, many analysts chuckle when he claims that his best football is yet to come.
In Sunday's 31-26 win over the San Diego Chargers, those chuckles turned into gasps.
Gasps of surprise… of amazement… of respect.
At the ripe age of 34, Lewis still has it.
Sure, 11 of his tackles in Qualcomm Stadium were of the typically-impressive Lewis sideline-to-sideline variety. But his final stop, the 12th, was a true example of why Lewis is thought of as one of the best in history.
With less than a minute left in the fourth quarter, the Chargers were driving for a potential lead-changing touchdown. Baltimore's defense had held strong for three consecutive pass attempts on first, second and third down, bringing up a fourth and one final crack at the end zone – or at least the first down marker about two yards away.
As quarterback Philip Rivers crouched under center, Lewis noticed something familiar, recognizing a play he had seen multiple times during his intense film-study sessions.
The Chargers ran a similar play in Week 1 against the Oakland Raiders and even executed it with some success on Sunday. Lewis made an executive decision to rely on his informed hunch rather than the confines of the called defense.
Even before the football was snapped, Lewis was striding towards the backfield. He split the A-gap between the center and right guard, slipped past pulling left guard Kris Dielman, and dropped running back Darren Sproles for a 5-yard loss.
"You go from film study and nothing changes," Lewis said afterwards. "They stayed to their form. Early in the game on that same play, I kept bouncing outside. When the game is on the line, as soon as Philip dropped down, I shot."
Lewis probably didn't even see Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco!(/team/roster/joe-flacco/3e20766f-6520-4ca1-9901-44389aaea8b8/ "Joe Flacco") run out the clock with a single kneel-down because of the mob of teammates that surrounded him on the sideline.
The celebration continued in the locker room. Lewis was cat-called by his teammates once he came off the field as the last Raven to enter.
Safety Ed Reed!(/team/roster/ed-reed/89ece203-7de4-4b40-9651-f16f4c3b7699/ "Ed Reed") screamed, "Hey Lew!" Flacco ran over to give Lewis a hug.
And later, head coach **John Harbaugh** called it the best play he's ever seen.
"It's important to the people that are involved in it," said Harbaugh on Monday when asked if he would still classify it as such. "I guess David Tyree's play [in Super Bowl XLII] was better for the Giants, but I wasn't on the Giants, so I didn't care. This game mattered to the Ravens. I felt that way yesterday and I feel that way today. Hopefully, there will be one next week that is even bigger.
"If you take into account the moment, a play had to be made."
True, Lewis' heroics came at a critical time.
Both teams had traded scores all day, and the Chargers remained within five points as time ticked away. Barring a kickoff return for a touchdown, the Ravens would likely have had no chance to answer if San Diego notched a first down and, eventually, a touchdown.
"You ask yourself, 'Can I shoot that?'" Lewis explained. "When the game is on the line, shoot it. Here we go. I saw him sitting there, and you know what I do to people."
What Lewis did was completely erase Sproles for this third tackle for a loss in the game.
He also left many of his teammates blinking in disbelief, not that he was there to save the game, but that they were first-hand witnesses.
"I knew he was going to make the play," linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs!(/team/roster/terrell-suggs/ad26be43-1380-45f1-b047-a91e850d9761/ "Terrell Suggs") said. "I just didn't know he was going to make it back there. I wanted to make it myself, but he was there.
"I didn't think it was real, but sure indeed, it was."