Like two boozy tourists passing on Bourbon Street at dawn, the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers are at the same place at the same time, but headed in two decidedly different directions.
Super Bowl Sunday? More like Snapshot Sunday. It’s Old vs. Bold.
The Ravens’ brightest stars — Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Anquan Boldin — are all on the wrong side of 30. Retirement isn’t far off for them.
The Niners, meanwhile, are led by a wunderkind quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, who was 13 the first and only time Lewis and the Ravens played on the game’s biggest stage.
San Francisco, the ‘80s dominant franchise, is built to become the Team of the Teens. Baltimore, meanwhile, would just take one last title before Father Time declares checkmate.
“We talk about opportunity a lot and how you have to seize the moment and appreciate the moment and make the most of the opportunities,” said Ravens center Matt Birk, the 36-year-old Harvard Man who went the first 14 years of his career without reaching the Super Bowl.
“The future? Who knows,” Birk said. “I know teams go through that, they have a window and it closes and they have to rebuild.”
The Niners don’t need examples. They lived through it for the better part of the decade. Between 1981 and 1994, San Francisco won five Super Bowls. The Niners missed the playoffs just twice in an 18-year span.
But after Steve Young’s retirement in 1999, the team was never the same. In the second half of the 2000s, eight wins was a good season. The franchise churned through three coaches in eight years.
But those losing seasons begot high draft picks who are now the backbone of perhaps the league’s most complete team: Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, Michael Crabtree, Aldon Smith.
The Niners also hit on picks outside the first round, taking Kaepernick in the second round, and Coral Gables’ Frank Gore in the third.
As for the franchise’s most important acquisition, he wears a whistle, not a helmet. Coach Jim Harbaugh decided to stay home after leaving Stanford, spurning the Dolphins, among others, to take over the Niners.
In Harbaugh’s two seasons on staff, San Francisco has gone 27-8-1, reaching the conference championship both years. So good, so soon, the Niners aren’t just thinking one title. They’re thinking dynasty.
“Oh we talk about that all the time,” said Crabtree, who is just 25. “So much talent on the team, and we’re all kind of young. You just want to see it all stay together.”
Said Willis: “Those teams [of the past] have set the bar pretty high for us, for guys that have come after them. We’ve been hearing about it — the quest for six, bring that ring back. The pressure’s on.”
The Ravens probably feel like they’re at Harrah’s with a fistful of comped chips. They limped into the postseason losers of four out of five games, and were among the longest playoffs shots to reach the Super Bowl.
But then Lewis announced his retirement, and this has been a different team. (Although it’s unclear if that’s causation or correlation; the team also has gotten healthy at the right time.)
And while talk of destiny might sound like hocus-pocus to clear-eyed realists, the way they beat the Broncos — needing a miracle last-minute, 70-yard bomb to force overtime — could make believers out of even the most cynical.
All about Ray Lewis
Lewis, the 17-year vet who has spent every year in Baltimore, always has had a knack of taking up all the oxygen in the room, and this week has been no different. Apologies to the Harbaughs — John and Jim are the first brothers to coach against each other in the Super Bowl — but this game is ultimately all about Ray.
His press conferences have been covered like White House briefings, ranging from the heartfelt to the bizarre (the deer-antler spray controversy).
“Personally, I am playing with two aces,” Lewis said. “There is no lose for me, because I’ve been in this game before, I’ve won a Super Bowl, I’ve won a MVP and I’ve done all those things.
“Now, being back here, knowing that this is my last time ever, the greatest reward to myself, honestly, is to give everything I got,” he said. “The greatest reward to my teammates is to give everything I got. At the end of the day when the clock hits triple zeros, I ride off into the sunset, and I ride off into an awesome life.”