The Baltimore Ravens 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans on Sunday night was not just a memorable game, it actually paid off on many of the storylines that the media hyped up in the interminable two weeks beforehand.
Even if you were lucky enough not to be beyond well-educated in its backstory before opening kickoff, the game itself was dramatic enough on its own. The consensus heading into the game seemed to be that it would be a close match, which made the opening half all the more remarkable in its one-sidedness. The Baltimore Ravens went up 21-6 on the San Francisco 49ers in the first half and then tacked on a Jacoby Jones 108-yard kickoff return touchdown immediately following Beyonce's halftime performance. In the middle of the 49ers' following drive the power at the Superdome went out, leading to a 34 minute delay before the game resumed. When the power finally returned, the 49ers seemed like a different team as they scored 17 unanswered points to make a game of it. Unfortunately for the 49ers, the comeback that fell short when they were unable to convert a first and goal situation into a potentially game-winning touchdown with less than two minutes to play. After some crafty time management, the Baltimore Ravens emerged as World Champions, at least in the American sports sense of the phrase, in what ended up being a hard-fought game on both sides.
In the abstract terms of which team scored and when, that's basically what happened during the game, but the box score barely even suggests the full story. Take for instance the main plot going into this game: this was the first time that two brothers had faced off as opposing head coaches in the Super Bowl. In what was only their second game coaching against each other in the pros, Baltimore's John Harbaugh faced off against San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh in the biggest stage in American sports. The drama of two brothers fighting against each other goes all the way back to Cain and Abel in the Bible, and features prominently in American historical events as epic as the Civil War and as mundane as the breakup of Creedence Clearwater Revival. It's no wonder that the HarBowl, as it was occasionally (awkwardly) called, took on a life of its own.
The crazy thing is that the game did actually end up coming down to the moves made by both coaches. It may not have been his best game - his call for a fake field goal late in the first half failed - but John Harbaugh out-coached his brother when the game was on the line. In the most crucial series of the game, a first and goal situation near the end of the fourth quarter, Jim Harbaugh and his quarterback Colin Kaepernick were unable to draw up a game plan to score a touchdown that would have put them ahead with less than two minutes of game time left. Having gotten the key stop on defense, John Harbaugh then made a canny gamble by having his team deliberately take a safety with the clock close to zero, conceding two points to the 49ers but making it almost impossible for them to score again. Imagine that: a game billed as a coaching battle between two brothers ended up being, in part, a coaching battle between two brothers.
It was only "in part" a coaching duel, because Super Bowl XLVII was also hyped up as a battle between two quarterbacks with a lot to prove. For the Baltimore Ravens, it was veteran Joe Flacco, having an up-and-down season in his contract year, coming into the 2013 NFL Playoffs with a reputation as being too inconsistent to be great. On the San Francisco side, the heavily tattooed Colin Kaepernick was also trying to deal with huge expectations as he was starting just his tenth NFL game. Kaepernick replaced starter Alex Smith when Smith went down with a concussion midway through the season and showed Jim Harbaugh enough that he awarded him the starting job when Smith returned, despite the fact that his predecessor was having a career year, even leading the league in completion percentage at the time of his benching. In a sense, in every game Kaepernick has started this season he was facing off against two quarterbacks: both the opposing quarterback and the one on the bench behind him. (This doesn't even factor in the legacies of those other guys who made it to the Super Bowl as 49ers quarterbacks.)
In a way both quarterbacks won on Sunday night, but, to misquote "The Simpsons", in another, more accurate way Joe Flacco was the winner. Flacco put up three touchdowns in the opening half to give the Ravens what seemed like an insurmountable lead. After the lead became much more, well, mountable in the second half, Flacco led the Ravens to long drives that resulted only in field goals but took enough time off the clock to limit the 49ers' chances. It was enough to give Flacco Super Bowl MVP honors, a chance to at least legitimately throw his hat into the "elite quarterback" conversation and, almost definitely, one of the largest raises in NFL history. In an up-and-down year he picked the best time imaginable to have the best games of his career, knocking out the Indianapolis Colts' rookie phenomenon Andrew Luck and two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning and the New England Patriots' Tom Brady, along the way.
Kaepernick, of course, had to outplay a few good quarterbacks himself, including one on his own team. By the time he reached the Super Bowl, Kaepernick proved that he was the right guy to start for his team in the postseason by first defeating Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in a high scoring affair and then beating Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons in a game where he pulled off the second half comeback drive that he just missed this time around. Considering how successful Kaepernick has been with such little experience, nobody would have counted it against him if he and his team folded going after falling behind 28-6 after the first first play of the third quarter. Instead, after a surreal 34 minute delay in action caused by a power failure in the Superdome, Kaepernick came firing, leading his team to those 17 unanswered points in the third and bringing them tantalizingly close to completing what would have been, at least numbers-wise, the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history.
Among those players who stopped Kaepernick's would-be-historical feat was Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis. The 37-year-old, a first ballot Hall of Famer and very very vocal Ravens clubhouse leader, was, in some respects, a bigger story than the made-for-TV drama of the grumpy coaching Harbaugh brothers or the competition between the two young quarterbacks who were essentially dueling for the Finals MVP trophy. Right before the NFL Playoffs began, Lewis announced that this season would be his last. As befits Lewis, it was a move that was made both for his team, a way to motivate them and perhaps deflect media attention away from them, and for himself, he certainly didn't exactly seem to mind all that media attention, at least most of the time.
Lewis, of course, was less than thrilled when the media brought up such things as his involvement in a 2000 double-homicide that ended when he plead down to obstruction of justice or the recent Sports Illustrated article that claims Lewis used a banned substance, New Zealand deer antler extract of all things, when recovering from a torn triceps injury earlier this season. (Lewis was not the only controversial player in this year's Super Bowl controversy, San Francisco 49ers' Chris Culliver also made headlines for using homophobic language while saying he would not accept a gay teammate. Culliver later apologized.)
Since 2000, Ray Lewis has developed the persona of the wayward youth turned gospel preacher, a big reason why he has been able to end his career as a respected, at least in the game, 17-year-veteran who ended his career with a Super Bowl win with the only team he's ever played for, a team that very few people thought was good enough to get this far. When asked if it made sense that the Ravens would effectively seal their Super Bowl win by forcing Kaepernick into an incomplete pass on 4th and goal, Lewis's response was "How could it end any other way but that?"
As over-the-top as Ray Lewis often seems in his sermonizing give him this: when football is at its most dramatic it really does at least feel like there's something akin to a divine plan at work. Although we often hear others, and ourselves, make references to the Sports Gods and pretend that it's in fun, there's a superstitious primitive part of us all that almost believes in them. When the lights went off in New Orleans, there was a part of us as diehard fans that wanted to believe that we were being sent some sort of signal by something above us, something even above CBS and Roger Goodell. When the San Francisco 49ers seemed to respond to the power outage by starting to play like they could actually steal the game away from the Baltimore Ravens, we wanted to give a certain amount of credit to the lights, call it momentum or a jinx or whatever.
When the game basically came down to one play, where the Ravens had to make a stop on 4th and goal and the 49ers had to convert a touchdown it almost didn't matter whether the younger brother or the older brother would prevail, which quarterback would later smile to the camera and say he was going to Disney World or whether or not Ray Lewis, whether you thought him saint or sinner, would end his career on a win or a loss. All that mattered was that the entire NFL season, all of it, was coming down to one single play.
No, the NFL season rarely ends like a television series ends because on those rare occasions that the final game is the culmination of so much that has gone before, it's way way more incredible, ridiculous and unbelievable than mere fiction is ever allowed to be. Can't wait until next season.
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image: © keith allison