Lewis' 17th and final season as the Baltimore Ravens greatest player of all-time will end with either a postseason loss or second career Super Bowl ring. Either way, Lewis is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and is likely to go down as one of the league's best defenders of all-time.
In honor of his storied career, here are the top five moments of his prolonged time in the league:
5. Holding Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders to just 41 yards in his final game ever:
It was the year 1998, and the 23-year old Lewis was about to wrap up the third season of his career, snagging his second consecutive Pro Bowl trip and everything. Lewis, despite missing two and a half games with a dislocated elbow, recorded 120 combined tackles, 3.5 sacks and 2 interceptions that season.
Though Baltimore finished the season with its third straight losing season at 6-10, the defense showed us a look into the coming years by shutting down Barry Sanders in the final game of the season. Sanders, 30 years old at the time, ran the ball 19 times for just 41 yards and no touchdowns in Baltimore's 19-10 victory. Sanders ran for 31 of those 41 yards on one play, in fact, and the shifty, 5-foot-8, 203-pound back ended up calling it quits prior to the '99 season. Lewis led the team in tackles with 7 (all solo) that game.
It was the end of the era for one great (Sanders) and the beginning of an era for another (Lewis).
4. Recording 183 combined tackles in 1997, second most all-time in a single-season
Lewis was drafted by Baltimore with the 26th pick in the 1996 NFL draft, the fourth linebacker taken that year behind Kevin Hardy (Jacksonville), John Mobley (Denver) and Reggie Brown (Detroit), as scouts believed he lacked the size needed for an inside linebacker. But Lewis made an immediate impact coming out of Miami, 110 combined tackles and 2.5 sacks in 13 starts as a rookie. But it was the following season, in 1997, that Lewis put up perhaps his most accomplished individual performance in his first full season for the Ravens.
The team went 6-9-1 and finished 5th in the AFC Central in '97, but Lewis came close to breaking Chris Spielman's single-season tackle record of 195, with 184 that season (156 solo, 28 assists). He averaged over 11 tackles a game and also added 4.0 sacks for the 18th-best scoring defense.
It was this season that people began to look at Lewis as a threat on every play and things began to turn around in the franchise's second full season. With rookies Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper on either side of him, the Ravens' had one of the youngest linebacking cores in the league and everything began to line up for one of the greatest defenses of the era in the next couple of seasons.
3. Becoming first player to ever record 40.0 sacks and 30 interceptions
In 2010, Lewis became the 2nd player in NFL history to record 30.0 sacks and 30 interceptions (Rodney Harrison of the Chargers and Patriots was the other). He became the fastest player to achieve this feat, however, in just 204 games. But, it wasn't until the following season that Lewis truly separated himself as arguably the best middle linebacker of all-time.
It was October 16, 2011. Baltimore was playing against the 3-2 Houston Texans at home, a game in which they managed to win 29-14, because of the fact that the defense managed to limit Arian Foster to just 49 yards on the ground. The feat was accomplished by Lewis on the very first drive of the game, as he sacked Houston quarterback Matt Schaub on a 2nd & 8 play for a loss of 7 yards. The sack gave him 40.5 sacks for his career and, thanks to his 31 career interceptions, he became the first player in history with 40.0+ sacks and 30+ interceptions in a single career. Quite the accomplishment, and it's one that further proves how he's become the greatest linebacker of his era.
2. Game-clinching 50-yard interception TD in postseason game vs. Titans
The 2000 season will forever go down as the greatest in Ravens' franchise history, and the four-game playoff stretch (including SB XXXV) for Lewis and the Ravens is one that will never be forgotten. If you add to it the rivalry between the AFC Central Ravens and Tennessee Titans, and you have one hell of a storyline. That's exactly what the Nation was set up for on January 7, 2001. Baltimore had just easily handed the Denver Broncos a 21-3 Wild Card loss at PSINet Stadium and had to travel to Adelphia Coliseum to take on a well-rested and ferocious 13-3 Titans squad.
Eddie George and Ray Lewis already had some pretty good match-ups with Tennessee taking four of the last six showdowns between the two teams. A missed field goal from kicker Al Del Greco gave Baltimore a 24-23 victory over Tennessee earlier that season, and the Titans were poised for payback. That was, until Lewis and the Baltimore defense stepped inside the Coliseum.
Baltimore quarterback Trent Dilfer was getting hit nearly every play and finished the game by completing just 5 of his 16 pass attempts for 117 yards. Yet somehow the defense managed to limit the Tennessee offense to 10 points and Lewis sealed the deal with a 50-yard interception touchdown. On the play running back Eddie George bobbled a screen pass from Steve McNair and Lewis stepped in and snatched the ball from George's grasp, running down the sideline like a freight train. This is without a doubt the greatest and most memorable play of Lewis' illustrious career (in my opinion, of course), yet somehow Baltimore fans seem to forget about it.
1. Winning Super Bowl MVP in 2000
Lewis, at the age of 25, was the heart and soul of one of the best defenses of all-time. Despite sub-par quarterback play from Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer, and a rookie running back, Lewis and the rest of the defense posted a 12-4 regular season record and breezed through the postseason with three consecutive wins over Denver, Tennessee and Oakland. Outscoring opponents 61-16 in those three games, the defense forced 7 turnovers and allowed 228.3 total yards per game.
In the Super Bowl against the New York Giants, Baltimore allowed just 152 yards and one touchdown while forcing five New York turnovers. In the four-game playoff run Lewis combined for 31 tackles, 2 interceptions (one for a touchdown), a fumble recovery and 9 pass deflections. It was the rest of his defense that recorded the 4.0 sacks and forced 5 turnovers against New York, but Lewis was awarded the MVP trophy of the Super Bowl thanks to 11 tackles. In addition to the ring he received for the 34-7 victory, winning the MVP award is likely Lewis' most coveted award throughout his career.
Career accomplishments and highlights:
*13 Pro Bowl appearances (most by an inside linebacker)
*7-time First Team All Pro, 3-time Second Team All Pro (his combined 10 All Pro selections is also a record for an inside linebacker
*2-time AP Defensive Player of the Year
*Super Bowl Champion and MVP
*Quickest to reach 20 sack/20 interception and 30 sack/30 interception clubs
*Only member of 40 sack/30 interception club
*Most games started at middle/inside linebacker with 227
*Recorded over 2,000 combined tackles in his 228 games
Postseason Stats (17 games):
10-7 team record
160 combined tackles, 2.0 sacks, 2 interceptions, 6 FF, 13 PD, 1 TD
*Averaged 9.4 combined tackles per game
*Game-clinching 50-yard INT TD in win over TEN (2000)
*Super Bowl MVP following 34-7 win over NYG (2000)
*17 combined tackles in 20-17 loss to TEN (2003), 15 combined tackles in 15-6 loss to IND (2006)
*13 tackles and a sack in a 33-14 victory over NE (2009)
With all this in mind, he still does have at least one more game to go (will return to the field for Baltimore's postseason game against the Colts on Sunday). So who knows, maybe he will do something that's worthy of cracking these top 5 career moments. We'll have to wait to find out. One thing is for sure, however: we will see Lewis in the Hall of Fame when he's eligible for induction in 2017.
Thought I'd also share evidence of the hardest hits of his career as well (I apologize if there is any profanity in the song lyrics, this was the best video I could find on Youtube):
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