By Bob Glauber | Scripps Howard nNews
Inside the losers' locker room, Ray Lewis gathered his teammates around him, some of them close to tears. The Baltimore Ravens had just lost to the New England 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."
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 New York 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.
Lewis declined to talk about the issue in recent weeks, although he probably will be asked about it further in the days ahead. I spoke to Lewis at length about the experience more than a decade ago, when he said he prayed every day for the victims' families. Over the years, he has said the same thing, and people who know Lewis insist he is a caring man.
In a 2010 interview with the Baltimore Sun, Lewis said: "I'm telling you, no day leaves this Earth without me asking God to ease the pain of anybody who was affected by that whole ordeal. He's a God who tests people -- not that he put me in that situation, because he didn't make me go nowhere. I put myself in that situation."
Lewis is still called a murderer by some fans, even though he was exonerated by authorities.
Those closest to Lewis call him a deeply religious man whose life is about giving back to others.
"Ray's a guy that has turned everything over," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's surrendered everything and he's become the man that he is to this day. He's a different man than he was when he was 22 or 15 or whatever. I think everybody sees that right now. I think it's a great thing for kids to see. It's a great thing for fathers to see. It's a great thing for athletes to see. It's a very special deal."
Harbaugh wants to see Lewis go out on top. One more win in New Orleans on Feb. 3, and the future Hall of Famer's dream comes true.