NFL’s First Family faces a tense time in basement

01/18/2013 12:01 AM

01/18/2013 11:28 AM

Jack and Jackie Harbaugh will once again be taking shelter from the emotional storm in the basement of their home in Mequon, Wis., this Sunday. It won’t be an NFL playoffs watch-party. No friends over. Just a husband, a wife and their frayed nerves.

“We share our misery with no one but ourselves,” as Jack told the San Francisco Chronicle this week.

You may have heard. Sons Jim and John Harbaugh coach the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens, respectively. That means football has a new First Family, one at least temporarily bumping the Mannings from the top of the genealogical marquee. It also means the Harbaughs are two victories, one by each son, from the ultimate Super Bowl:

The Bro Bowl. The Har-Bowl.

The father, himself a former longtime college coach, mentioned “misery” because they went through this same thing a year ago. Both sons were in a conference championship game, but neither won. Jim’s 49ers lost to the Giants; now it’s the Atlanta Falcons in the way. John’s Ravens lost to New England, the same team they face again Sunday.

“Last year was completely draining,” sister Joanie Harbaugh Crean recalled. “Now, my stomach is already raw.”

(Coincidental aside: Joanie is married to Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean, who is Dwyane Wade’s old mentor.)

Both coaching sons sort of prefer that the folks stay home, although a bro vs. bro Super Bowl would render that unlikely. Watching on TV Sunday will be trying enough.

“My parents are in their 70s,” as Jim put it this week. “That’s a lot of excitement. It’s like watching three episodes of 24 in a row.”

John, 50, is one year older and in the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season. Jim is in the postseason a second consecutive year, proving why the Dolphins were smart to be interested in him. The brothers combined have a 87-38-1 record, which is a tad beyond phenomenal, a Super Bowl ring all that’s missing.

I would also note each brother was associated with a bit of daring this season. Jim, of course, benched his successful starting quarterback, Alex Smith, in favor of inexperienced Colin Kaepernick at midseason. Less discussed, John changed offensive coordinators in mid-December, swapping Cam Cameron for Jim Caldwell. Both coaches messed with success, and succeeded.

The Harbaugh factor stands out, but interesting elements of this NFL final four are everywhere you look. Any of the four teams winning Sunday would present its own intrigue.

Let’s take the finalists alphabetically:

•  Atlanta Falcons: What we have left in this postseason is all beef, no filler — four division champs, no wild cards — but the Falcons, despite their 13-3 regular-season record, are as close to the requisite Cinderella as any team. Until a week ago, the can’t-win-a-playoff-game burden hung on the franchise neck like a yoke. Atlanta’s only previous Super Bowl appearance was a loss in 1998, so this is the only remaining team trying to climb where it has never before been.
•  Baltimore Ravens: Ray Lewis. That’s all you need. The half of the Harbaugh tale represented here is nice, but the overriding emotional draw left in these playoffs is that the retiring Lewis, the Hall of Fame-bound ex-Cane, is either about to play in his last game ever, or move a step closer to his storybook ending. The Ravens appeared in their only Super Bowl and won in 2000, early in Lewis’ career. Two more wins and old Ray goes out with the perfect bookends for his career story.
•  New England Patriots: This is the betting favorite to win what would be the fourth Super Bowl championship and sixth SB appearance for quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick (but the first since 2004). That, by almost anybody’s definition, is a dynasty. Rooting for the Pats to win it all might feel a little like hoping Donald Trump hits the Lotto, but this is the team for fans of sustained excellence.
•  San Francisco 49ers: The phenomenon that is Kaepernick might be the story of this team, but the larger story here is a once-dominant franchise trying to stake its claim to being back all the way. San Fran is 5 for 5 in Super Bowls, but the last championship was in 1994, a football eternity ago.

If I might be a bit parochial, the final four also offers the likelihood of local fans hearing “The U” a bit in pregame introductions Sunday. Ex-Canes are everywhere.

The Ravens, besides Lewis, include safety Ed Reed, of course, tackle Bryant McKinnie, and developing reserves in running back Damien Berry and wide receiver Tommy Streeter.

The Falcons’ punter is Matt Bosher, and Harland Gunn is a reserve guard.

The 49ers’ offensive hub is ageless runner Frank Gore, and Tavares Gooden is a reserve linebacker.

The only ex-Cane Patriot is a big one in every way: defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.

Boston’s malapropism-tending mayor, Thomas Menino, this week referred to Wilfork as “Wilcock.” No matter.

His surname might be tricky, but his role is clear.

He’ll be one of the guys with the most to say Sunday about whether Lewis gets his fairy-tale ending, and whether Jack and Jackie Harbaugh see what they hope to down in that basement in Wisconsin.

A previous version of this article misstated the age difference between John and Jim Harbaugh. They are one year apart.

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