NEW ORLEANS — The beautiful football mind of Sean Payton is a well-established force in the 21st century NFL panorama, and it was on full display in the wee hours Thursday morning as he entertained a small group of guests at his Warehouse district condominium.
The New Orleans Saints' recently reinstated coach was breaking down Sunday's Super Bowl XLVII matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens, and he gave a very technical, intelligent and persuasive assessment of why he believes the Niners are likely to win.
When it comes to such assessments, I trust Payton like Manti Te'o trusted his imaginary girlfriend. But I also trust my instincts, and after ignoring them five years ago when I picked the undefeated Patriots to beat the underdog Giants in Super Bowl XLII — and before Baltimore's recent playoff upsets of the Broncos and Pats — I'm going with the feeling in my gut, rather than the one in my brain.
The Ravens are going to win the Super Bowl — not because they are the superior team, but because they have a collective spirit that is defiant, resilient and resoundingly powerful.
I've suspected that they were a special team since late November, when I stood on the Qualcomm Stadium sidelines and watched them win a game that required Ray Rice to pick up a first down on a fourth-and-29 checkdown from Joe Flacco. I've seen them battle through the heartbreaking disappointment of last season's AFC championship game defeat to the Pats and channel the emotion of Ray Lewis' last ride, and I'm a believer.
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They have that we don't give a damn looseness of the 2007 Giants and their 2011 successors, which brings us back to my instincts, and why I am inclined to trust them. A year ago, after picking the Giants to lose road playoff games to the Packers and Niners, I finally stopped fighting what I felt to be true: It didn't matter how they matched up on paper with any opponents, including the favored Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. When a team has it — and this is not something that necessarily happens every season, or even every few seasons — that team becomes a force of nature not only impervious to pressure, but more dangerous because the situation is so charged.
This is hard to quantify, and somewhat hard to justify to people who watch football from a more detached distance, but I believe there's an energy about the Ravens that will carry them through any potential crisis on Super Sunday. And when I ran into Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, who played on each of those aforementioned Super Bowl winners, in the lobby of the AFC champions' team hotel Thursday afternoon, it was interesting that he was in absolute agreement.
"You're not crazy," he said. "It may seem crazy to people who don't know our world, but what football is — what it really is — has a lot to do with the way teams learn to confront situations, together. And I think people are missing that when they look at the Ravens, and I think some of them may be surprised by the way this game goes.
"I've seen a bunch of [Ravens] around the hotel, and they look completely at ease. It kind of reminds me of the way we felt last year, and [five] years ago. You get challenged by circumstances and adversity, and you work your way through those challenges, and you start to feel invincible. Not invincible, actually, but just so confident that you can find a way to fight through any obstacle, and very calm about whatever awaits you.
"I guarantee the Ravens aren't worried at all about this game. They're not thinking, 'What if we lose?' because losing just isn't an option. They think, 'It's our time, we'll find a way.' And I think it's their time, too."
I've paid special attention to the Ravens over the years, partly because they have compelling competitors like Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Anquan Boldin, and partly because they have a history of openness and provocative speech in their locker room. I believed they were the best team in football a year ago, and when they couldn't close the deal in that AFC title game in Foxborough, I thought there was a distinct possibility that the opportunity for a second championship in the Lewis era had been squandered and that a major upheaval was in store.
All the signs were there, beginning with Suggs' torn Achilles tendon last May — and yet the Ravens kept ignoring them, defying doctors' declarations and shrugging off slumps and bonding together through trying circumstances and refusing to let the dream die.
In the hype-laden cesspool that is Super Bowl week, Lewis has been portrayed in some quarters as somewhat of a caricature, and his dramatic return from a torn triceps and perfectly-timed retirement announcement are probably at the point of provoking eye-rolls to some.
I can understand why that would happen, especially when the future Hall of Famer does things like characterizing the timing of this week's Sports Illustrated report that he may have used a banned substance to help recover from his injury as "the trick of the devil." However, writing off Lewis' leadership as a cartoonish sideshow would be a big, big mistake.
When Lewis gathered his teammates four days before their playoff opener against the Colts and told them he was stepping away, they felt the power of the moment and understood the urgency of their situation in a uniquely intimate way. The emotion of their last ride is real. The strength of Lewis' leadership, and the way his teammates feed off of it, is true and pure and genuine and sincere.
This doesn't mean that the Ravens will definitely win this game. The 49ers are a tremendous team, and they have plenty of motivational magic of their own. Payton, and the betting public, may well be right: San Francisco could win, and it could win big.
Yet something tells me that, not only are the Ravens not stressed about such a possibility, but they're also not even prone to framing things in such terms. They want to prevail, absolutely, but I think Lewis and his teammates see their journey as something that transcends the scoreboard. For them, the brotherhood and the spirit and the indefatigable intensity and the refusal to succumb is the thing. They're going to do whatever it takes to outscore the 49ers, but the will to do that is what defines them, rather than the outcome.
I stood at Lewis' podium for an hour on Tuesday at the Superdome, and I listened as, over and over, the great linebacker attempted to put this into words. I don't know how others processed his statements, but I know enough of his teammates well enough to be certain that they understand him — and feel him — on a level those of us who aren't in that locker room could never appreciate.
Toward the end of his media day session, Lewis was asked a question about the culture of the Ravens, and he gave a long and illuminating response, the end of which alluded to something I've long believed about this team.
"I take my hat off to the organization," Lewis said, "because we've created one heck of an environment around there. Actually, one of the chefs [at the team meal] this morning, she actually commented on that. Miss Gloria. I remember her name. She said that she's been around for so many years and saw so many teams come through here, and people have been kind of stuck-up-ish or whatever, and she said, 'There's something different about you guys. You guys have a certain level of humility and respect for people. For people, period.' And that's a credit to our organization, that we really carry ourselves the right way."
I think Miss Gloria is onto something. I believe that humility and respect are part of a fierce inner peace which, on Super Sunday, will allow the Ravens to perform to the best of their ability, with a clarity of purpose that galvanizes each and every person on that sidelines.
And I believe that purple confetti will fall onto the Superdome turf when the 2012 NFL season comes to a close.
That's my pick, and I'm sticking to it. My instincts aren't always spot-on, but for better or worse, I'm going to follow them.
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