I'm surprised how completely I'm buying in to the notion that just getting to the Super Bowl is a crowning accomplishment for a team.
Most Super Bowl losers are more or less consigned to the dustbin of history. No one really gives any credit to the Panthers for a great accomplishment in 2003, or to the Cardinals for a great run in 2008, or to the Titans for being a great team in 1999. Those teams lost, and they are nothing. And that's weird actually, because the games those teams lost were magnificent, down-to-the-wire nailbiters. The Panthers lost on an Adam Vinatieri field goal with 4 seconds on the clock. The Cardinals lost on a thrilling last-minute TD pass in the back corner of the end zone, 35 seconds on the clock, fabulous catch, a play that was endlessly shown as a highlight all offseason. The Titans lost when Kevin Dyson was tackled one yard shy of the end zone on the final play of the game. These are games that VERY EASILY could have gone the other way, teams that were just as good on Super Sunday as their opponent. But those teams lost, and therefore suck.
The only real exception to the “losers are nothing” rule is the Imperfect Patriots, who were 18-0 going into the Big Game, and lost. Maybe the Colts of Super Bowl 3, old Johnny Unitas and Earl Morrall and Tom Matte, losing the game of “The Guarantee”. But everyone else, we forget.
So that explains why I'm “surprised”. More difficult to explain why I'm buying it, that just getting there is a big deal: because despite all of the foregoing, I'm really excited and happy for the Ravens who have gotten to the big game. We usually vilify teams who are satisfied just to get there, but just getting there is an extremely satisfying accomplishment. These Ravens have banged their head against the conference championship door a few times in the last 5 season. Getting IN is tremendous.
What makes it special is the two week layoff, the long pause during which you are at the very top of the game. Prior to the Ravens being part of it, I have looked down my nose at Super Bowl week and Media Day and the endless empty “analysis” and the blather & hype that goes with all of it. But now that the Ravens are in it, it seems like a humane tradition. Picture CBS playing “One Shining Moment” at the end of the NCAA Tournament, but this song goes on for two weeks.
Ed Reed gets a piece of center stage! Have you seen how happy Ed Reed looks, in all his press conferences? Deeply, deeply happy. Like I've never seen him before: utterly relaxed and at peace. The stupidest questions elicit from him a fond, indulgent chuckle; and he's a guy who often seems bitter & angry when put in front of a camera. Getting the Hall of Famer to this game and this stage, in his home city, is a worthy deed. Terrell Suggs is a guy in less need of a raised platform; but he's a 10-yr veteran who's been a big-enough part of enough greatness to “deserve” a trip to this game. Matt Birk, Haloti Ngata, Vonta Leach, Marshall Yanda, Ray Rice: these are guys any NFL fan could root for getting their chance to trot onto the field Super Sunday. Joe Flacco gets to push aside all that “elite” stuff: for two weeks he is a Super Bowl QB, and the critics are nowhere to be found. Anquan Boldin & Brendon Ayanbadejo get to return to the Super Bowl. And yes, Ray Lewis doesn't end his career in the anonymity of a road loss in the divisional round. For the last two weeks of the football year, he is the biggest star in the NFL.
So, getting here is enormously satisfying. These two weeks stretch out, in a really nice and enjoyable way for a Ravens fan.
I have to admit, I'm a little concerned that just getting here BETTER be enough. Because the game itself worries me. It's a common observation that these Ravens remind of recent Giants teams, 2007 and last year. Scrappy teams with a puncher's chance, who heat up and make the most of what they got. Aaron Schatz writes: “here we are again, with the 'mediocre team gets hot in the playoffs' conundrum.” Those teams won. But I'm afraid the Giants team these Ravens most resemble, is the one from a dozen years ago. They were a scrappy, above-average but not great team, that surprised a couple opponents in the playoffs and advanced to the Super Bowl. There they ran into a VASTLY more physical team, and they got destroyed. The opponent was younger, faster, stronger, on both fronts. The game was not competitive. That's what I worry about with this game. San Francisco is younger, faster, and stronger on both fronts.
These two teams played 14 months ago, and I thought the Niners were younger/faster/stronger then. The Ravens only won because of the home field / travel advantage, and because they were a little farther along the program-building arc than the Niners were. The Ravens were accustumed to playing in “that game,” they did it twice (sometimes thrice) a year vs Pittsburgh; whereas the Niners were still brand new to the idea of being a great team. And the Ravens had a slightly more fully-functional offense, with their QB and OC having the whole playbook. But that was last season. The Niners have gotten better since; and the Ravens have for the most part just aged. San Francisco has had a whole year (and two conference championship appearances) to grow into the role of being a great team. There's no short week / long travel advantage for the Ravens here, both teams are a short walk from the stadium.
San Francisco is an awfully strong team. Ben Muth writes that the best unit in football is the Niners O-line. Not the best O-line, the best unit overall; and the Ravens have been appallingly vulnerable to a strong rushing attack all season long. The Niners have an outstanding front seven, while the Ravens have been inconsistent on the O-line thruout the season. And Jim Harbaugh has big brass balls (see: Veer, Collin Kaepernick). There's just a lot to worry about in this game, if you're a Ravens fan.
The reasons to be hopeful, for a Ravens fan, mostly revolve around what we've seen in the playoffs.
- Ray Lewis pointed out that the first time he, Suggs, Reed and Bernard Pollard all played together this season, was the first playoff game. Plus Haloti Ngata has been trudging along at about 80% for most of the year. Is the healthy Ravens D we've seen in the playoffs a much more capable squad than we saw during the reg season?
- Have Jim Caldwell and Joe Flacco discovered magic offense sauce?
- Is the revamped O-line a solid unit?
- Is Collin Kaepernick still an inexperienced QB after only 9 starts? Can he be baited into some game-changing mistakes, by Mr Ed Reed? Who, by the way, will be playing in his home state. If I had to pick the one Ravens defender most ready to make an impact play…
I am happy for you guys. It’s a special time, the next couple of weeks, regardless of the outcome on 2/3. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a fan of a few great teams balanced at the precipice of the pinnacle – as the Ravens are now – to know how exhilarating it is. IMO the anticipation is far more fun and rewarding than the actual outcome.
Sunday's gonna come fast, and it's gonna be gone even quicker. This nice, long moment is one to savor.