Lewis goes out on his own terms and spares Baltimore any indignity

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That he would go on to become perhaps the greatest linebacker in the history of the sport, become a fixture alongside Cal Ripken and Johnny Unitas on the city's all-time sporting Mount Rushmore, and bring a Super Bowl title to Baltimore -- none of it seemed possible when the undersized linebacker was just trying to prove he could stick in the NFL.

That the last time his home fans will root against the team wearing the same iconic blue and white uniforms Unitas once did -- in a year in which few saw the Colts being this good, and with Lewis' beloved former defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano recovered from cancer and once again on the Colts' sideline -- is probably too bizarre a confluence of events for some to comprehend.

Yet somehow it seems as it should be. Of course, we still don't know how much Lewis will play Sunday, but the mere fact he was able to get back on the active roster, at his age no less, from what looked like a season-ending triceps tear, is just another accomplishment to marvel at, and yet another subplot to savor in the wild-card game.

This could also be the last time Lewis and fellow future Hall-of-Famer and Miami Hurricane legend Ed Reed play together, pending the outcome, and Reed could also very well be in his final days in Baltimore.

Reed is a free agent at season's end. The Ravens have made no attempts to re-sign him, sources said. In fact, the sides haven't really had any contract dialogue since before the 2011 season, and many of Reed's teammates believe he will be gone. Baltimore is likely to have to franchise quarterback Joe Flacco, is transitioning from its aging defense, and the salary-cap situation has been tight in recent years. The free-agent waters could prove deeper elsewhere.

Given that backdrop, both Reed and Lewis enter this game knowing all that is at stake, emotionally and otherwise. No one is being naive about the murky future, and no one is taking for granted that Reed or Lewis will ever run out of the tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium again. The business of football and the complications of age, injury and finances eventually catch up to everyone.

Thankfully, for all involved, Lewis has opted to go out on his own terms, on a playoff stage, and sparing the organization and its fans what could have been a brutally uncomfortable offseason. I've seen firsthand how awkward these transitions can be, having covered Ripken near the end of his career and the delicate contractual and playing-time dances he did with the Orioles.

Given the fact that it was becoming apparent to many that Lewis was no longer a starter on this Ravens team, and even his situational play in question, and with him set to make more than $5 million next season, there now have to be no touchy conversations about a reduced roll and a reduced salary. The idea of a 2013 Ray Lewis on the roster primarily for the unique motivational and on-field coaching boost his mere presence provides never has to come into play.

No, instead he gets a final playoff game, where even getting in for a few snaps would be a massive accomplishment. He gets that final, resounding, home salute he deserves with a season hanging in the balance. He spares Ravens fans the sight of, say, Ray Lewis in a Cardinals jersey the way Johnny U went out wearing San Diego's powder blues.

And in doing so, he gives Ravens fans one last, lingering gift, walking away with the city at his feet, the Colts coming to town, and Canton awaiting his arrival.

CBS Sports Insider

Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday... Full Bio

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