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NEW ORLEANS – His work was done. His conquest was complete. And with his sons in tow, a victory party to attend and a post-football existence to begin, Ray Lewis politely declined to answer another question about the Baltimore Ravens' remarkable Super Bowl XLVII triumph.
Then, suddenly, the departing star changed his mind: The subject matter stopped him. What's love got to do with it? Lewis, the Ravens' legendary linebacker and unparalleled leader, the man who'd just been part of a dramatic goal-line stand to preserve a 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, flashed a satisfied smile and gave the final quote of his 17-year career.
"Love," Lewis said, "is the reason why we're here."
He took a few steps and stopped to embrace the only other Ravens player who remained in the locker room, cornerback Cary Williams.
"They just don't understand, do they, Cary, how much we love each other?" Lewis asked. He turned back to me, resuming his last interview as an active player: "But it's a family, man, for life. For life! We're a family, man. And that's what it's really all about: When you see people win championships, they do it based off love."
In truth, these Ravens had a litany of special qualities. To defeat the favored 49ers in front of 71,024 fans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome – and with the whole world watching on television – the Ravens had to demonstrate the resilience and collective will which carried them throughout this special season.
"If it wasn't tough, it wouldn't have been right," veteran linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said afterward. "I mean, by any means necessary. Whatever it took to get the job done. We never gave up faith. We just believed. We're a galvanized unit. We're battle-tested. We've been through the flames together, and that's why we came out world champions."
Sure enough, after jumping out to a 28-6 lead on Jacoby Jones' 108-yard kickoff return to start the second half, Baltimore would have to endure a bizarre, momentum-killing, 34-minute delay caused by a Superdome power outage and survive a furious 49ers comeback that brought San Francisco to within five yards of a go-ahead score.
Lewis, a polarizing and attention-consuming figure in the week leading up to the game, didn't make a play as the Ravens made their season-saving stand. He didn't have to, because others stepped up, which was precisely the point.
In a season of emotional speeches, including the Jan. 2 team meeting in which Lewis underscored the urgency of the Ravens' playoff quest by informing teammates that the upcoming postseason would be his "last ride," the linebacker saved his most powerful words for the most pivotal moment.
On Saturday night in a banquet room on the third floor of the Hilton Riverside – coach John Harbaugh, bucking the convention of virtually every Super Bowl team of the last two decades, decided not to move his unflappable team to a lower-key location on the eve of the Ultimate Game – Lewis gave a tearful, 11-minute speech that had many of his ultra-tough teammates bawling like Oprah watching "Terms of Endearment."
"It was awesome. Awesome. Exactly what we needed," said Ravens pass rusher Terrell Suggs, the 2011 NFL defensive player of the year who fought back from Achilles tendon and biceps tears to contribute to his team's unlikely title run. "But what else do you expect from the ultimate leader? There'll never be another like him.
"He talked about his teammates. He said, ‘When we get this done tomorrow, we'll be linked together forever. … Let's go show the world how special our brotherhood is.' And that's what we went and did."
If your instincts are to roll your eyes at such proclamations, I strongly advise you to fight them. In our football-obsessed culture, we tend to characterize the game as one of matchups and schemes, of big hits and pretty passes, of statistical trends and superior athleticism. It can be all of that, at times, but at its core the sport – even at its highest level – is about trusting the person next to you and bonding together to create an aura of imperviousness.
And, as Lewis asserts, love, at least for these Ravens, is the most powerful force of all.
"I mean, we were ready to die for each other out there," Ayanbadejo said. "And I know that's a bit dramatic, but that's the way this team is. That's what Ray has talked about. The reason we've succeeded is because of the way we feel about each other. It's something Ray Lewis has told us since Day 1. ‘What would you do for the man next to you?' For us, the answer is, 'Anything.'
"Love put us over the top. You wouldn't think it, because football is a game known for machismo and violence and toughness, but love is what drove our success. Just like the most epic action movies end up being love stories – 'The Matrix,' 'Star Wars,' 'Gladiator.' This Ravens team is a love story."
The story began 54 weeks ago, when a pair of late blunders doomed Baltimore to a crushing defeat to the New England Patriots in the 2011 AFC championship game. A postgame speech by Lewis helped drive the Ravens to overcome a litany of obstacles and navigate their way through internal tension that included a contentious late October meeting after the linebacker went down with what was believed to be a season-ending triceps injury.
In the playoffs, after a first-round victory over the Indianapolis Colts in which Lewis was showered with affection following his final home game, Baltimore pulled off road upsets over future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, the latter an AFC title game rematch with the Pats in Foxborough, Mass.
"We had the toughest road in these playoffs," Suggs said Sunday night. "We did it, baby. We did it together."
In those 11 emotional minutes on Saturday night, Lewis reminded his teammates of all of that, and more. Harbaugh, whose impending clash with younger brother and Niners coaching counterpart Jim rivaled Lewis' swan song as the predominant pre-Super Bowl theme, spoke for less than a minute before yielding the floor to the linebacker, and the passion came pouring out of the team's 37-year-old leader.
"Ray said last night that he's never felt love like this on any team that he's ever played on in this life," Ayanbadejo said. "And he included the 2000 team [which won the Ravens' only other Super Bowl]. He said that we're willing to do anything for each other, and that's when you become a champion, when you're willing to do anything for the man next to you.
"People were crying. He was crying. It was the last time he was ever gonna stand up in front of us. So it was an intimate, special moment that we had together. It was a night I'll never forget. It was just a culmination of everything we believed in, 54 weeks ago when we lost that AFC championship game."
As if the Ravens needed an additional emotional jolt, it came on Super Sunday. A few hours before the game, former Baltimore linebacker and current senior adviser to player development O.J. Brigance addressed the team. Brigance, whose battle with ALS has touched Baltimore's players on a daily basis, spoke through a communication device that translates his thoughts and, said Suggs, "just put it all in perspective, about us being a team of vision and all we've been through."
Once Baltimore's players took the field at the Superdome, they felt the love of their raucous, chanting supporters. Twelve years ago at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, in the franchise's fifth season of existence, Ravens fans were vastly outnumbered by those of the New York Giants, a team Baltimore would dispatch by a 34-7 score.
This time, the roars of their purple-clad peeps dominated the stadium. Ravens fans would have plenty to cheer about, from the jump: Fifth-year quarterback Joe Flacco, continuing a stellar postseason (11 touchdown passes, no interceptions, matching Joe Montana's incredible 1989 performance), tossed three first-half scoring throws, the first a 13-yard beauty to veteran wideout Anquan Boldin (six catches, 104 yards) in the back of the end zone and the last a 56-yard bomb to Jones.
A David Akers field goal on the final play of the first half closed the Niners' deficit to 21-6, but when Jones took the second-half kickoff to the house, it looked like lights out for the 49ers. Then, darkness descended, and it was lights out for the Ravens' runaway victory.
When the game finally resumed everything changed. The Niners, as they had after falling into an early 17-0 hole in their NFC championship game victory over the Atlanta Falcons, launched a fast and furious comeback that would bring them to within two points with 10:04 remaining, failing to tie the game when Colin Kaepernick's throw for a two-point conversion sailed over the head of Randy Moss.
The Ravens responded with a long field-goal drive to take a 34-29 lead with 4:23 remaining. Preserving it – and the team's championship dreams – would be on the defense, as it had so many times in Lewis' long career.
"When we kicked that field goal with 4:32 to go, I said, ‘Oh [expletive], we needed to put ‘em away,'" Suggs said. "That was soooo stressful."
Frank Gore's 33-yard burst around left end to the Baltimore 7 brought the stress level to an almost untenable level. Almost. Lewis, Suggs and their fellow defenders, including veteran safety Ed Reed (who'd earlier grabbed his ninth career postseason interception, tying an NFL record), weren't having that. They couldn't. This was about securing a legacy, finishing a long quest and honoring the bonds forged over years of similar struggles.
One two-yard run by LaMichael James and three Kaepernick-to-Crabtree incompletions later, the Ravens had shown the world how special their brotherhood was. Baltimore took over at its own 5, and after killing most of the clock on three short runs, Harbaugh had punter Sam Koch take an intentional safety. With four seconds remaining, Koch handled free-kick duties from his own 20 and blasted a punt to Ted Ginn Jr. who, with apologies to recently fired Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, would have needed the assistance of his entire family to go the 69 yards needed to win this game.
Ginn made it to midfield before being tackled, the season literally ending with a fallen opponent on the NFL shield logo while Lewis, as he'd envisioned in weeks leading up to the game, celebrated with his teammates amid purple confetti swirling up above.
Ninety minutes later, after answering one, final question about love, Lewis strode out of the locker room and entered the hallway leading up to the Superdome exit. As he headed toward team bus No. 5 outside, scores of stadium workers in red jackets spontaneously burst into applause.
I've covered 20 Super Bowls, including last-game triumphs by retiring stars John Elway, Jerome Bettis and Michael Strahan, but I'm not sure I've ever seen a sight like that.
Then again, I've never encountered a leader like Lewis nor, in many ways, have I seen a team like the 2012 Ravens. Their season was a succession of perseverance through tough circumstances and communal defiance that baffled outsiders but made plenty of sense to the men who made it happen.
It was a love story with an epic ending, and when the star gave his speech on the eve of his last and most satisfying act as a leader, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
1. In the wake of the backlash he received after making anti-gay comments during last Tuesday's media day, 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver got abused throughout Sunday's game. He followed up a miserable first half with a second half that included getting stiff-armed by Boldin en route to a 30-yard gain and a third-down pass interference penalty on the Ravens' fourth-quarter field goal drive. I can't tell you for sure that the fallout from the controversy negatively impacted Culliver's mindset on game day, but I do know his comments bothered me and a whole lot of others. And as a man who was born in San Francisco and has spent much of his life living in or near the Bay Area, it's incredibly frustrating that the franchise which represents America's most tolerant city has, a decade after similarly insensitive comments by former running back Garrison Hearst, incurred another stain. The Ravens, conversely, are a refreshingly progressive ensemble, from Ayanbadejo's outspoken support of gay marriage to Suggs' comments last Thursday that he and his teammates "just accept people for who they are and don't really care too much about a player's sexuality." Imagine that.
2. Twelve years ago in Tampa, I had inside information that allowed me to predict a big Super Bowl XXXV for Brandon Stokley to my Sports Illustrated colleagues, who laughed at me. They laughed at me, that is, until the Ravens backup receiver caught the game's first touchdown, after which several of them (including future "Good Morning America" personality Josh Elliott, with whom I had some fun this past week in New Orleans) looked up toward the press box from their seats in Raymond James Stadium's auxiliary media section in awe. For an encore this week, I made a much less informed prediction that rush linebacker Paul Kruger would be a breakout player for the Ravens. Kruger wasn't one of the game's stars, but he did have a pair of sacks, including one that forced the Niners to settle for a field goal on their second drive.
3. I know picking a Hall of Fame class is extremely difficult, and I was really pleased with the seven-member group chosen Saturday, a process which necessitated some excruciating exclusions. I was especially happy for my friend Warren Sapp and for my former Y! Sports video colleague Cris Carter, who earlier in the week had helped me gain insight into the comparison between the self-proclaimed greatest receiver of all time (Moss) and the actual one (Hall of Famer Jerry Rice). If I had the ability to tweak the class, I'd take Strahan, the former New York Giants defensive end, as a first-ballot selection, at the expense of Bill Parcells. This is not to say that Parcells isn't deserving; he is, as is former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, Niners and Cowboys pass-rushing terror Charles Haley and Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, among others.
4. Speaking of tough choices, choosing an NFL Most Valuable Player and offensive rookie of the year wasn't easy this season. In December, I'd advocated for Vikings running back Adrian Peterson to beat out Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning for MVP; I reiterated that position Tuesday during an NFL Network interview in which I also chose Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III as my top offensive rookie, over Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. It turned out the voters agreed with me on both counts, but I wouldn't have been mad if they had gone the other way. What a year.
5. The lights went out in the Superdome at 7:38 p.m. central time. NFL honchos squirmed. And somewhere in Texas, Jerry Jones started high-fiving everyone.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
2. Why John Harbaugh, a longtime special teams coach with the Eagles, decided to run that fake field goal with the Ravens up 14-3 and 3:12 remaining in the first half. Though the direct snap to Justin Tucker clearly caught the Niners off guard, asking the rookie kicker to get nine yards around the left edge was a bit ambitious. Given that the play was executed perfectly, with Dickson taking out Niners linebacker Patrick Willis on a block near the sideline, I'm not sure what Harbaugh was thinking. I actually thought the fact that Tucker got to within a yard of the first down marker in that scenario was pretty impressive. The Ravens had so much momentum at that point in the game that, in my opinion, it was reckless not to take the (virtual) sure-thing field goal and extend the lead to two touchdowns. The mishap didn't prove too costly for the Ravens, who forced a three-and-out and responded with Flacco's 56-yard touchdown pass to Jones. Yet three points are three points, and while I love the concept of running a fake — and I love the way John Harbaugh and his assistants had the Ravens ready to play on Super Sunday — restraint would have been the better decision in that specific context.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE THE DAWN
In case you haven't noticed, Jim Harbaugh becomes a tad agitated when he perceives a call as having gone unjustly against his team. On the sidelines, he's a cross between Mike Ditka, his old coach with the Chicago Bears, and the late comedian Sam Kinison. So it was hardly surprising that Harbaugh took umbrage at the officials' failure to throw a flag on Kaepernick's fourth-and-goal throw to Crabtree in the right corner of the end zone, among other complaints during his postgame media session. "Yes, there's no question in my mind that there was a pass interference [on a previous play] and then a hold on Crabtree on the last one," Harbaugh said.
To be fair, it did look as though Crabtree might have been held by Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith on the play. Here's the thing, however: You can't have it both ways. Two weeks ago in the NFC championship game at the Georgia Dome, with the Niners clinging to a 28-24 lead and 1:13 remaining, the Falcons had a fourth-and-4 play from the San Francisco 10 that would decide their fate. Niners linebacker NaVorro Bowman went over the back of Falcons wideout Roddy White to break up Matt Ryan's pass, and I didn't hear Harbaugh (or Falcons coach Mike Smith, for that matter) complaining about that non-call, and Bowman admitted to Sports Illustrated's Jim Trotter that he'd been "pulling and tugging" White. Either Bowman, by the coach's logic, should have been susceptible to a pass interference call in that pivotal situation, or Smith should have received the leeway to put his hands on Crabtree. And realistically, officials invariably tend to keep their flags in their pockets (as NBA refs swallow their whistles) in those pivotal, season-defining situations — and Harbaugh knows darn well that's the case. In any event, even if he felt the Niners had been robbed, Harbaugh would have been best served by keeping it classy, congratulating the Ravens and letting 49ers fans and media analysts do the complaining for him.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Wtf. [Expletive] amateurs"
– Text Sunday night from Browns tackle Joe Thomas, during the blackout.
"I'm just so glad you get to come home"
– Text Sunday night from my 13-year-old son, reacting to the end of a thrilling (and tiring) season.
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