NEW ORLEANS — Like a savory Cajun gumbo, the Super Bowl has something for everyone’s tastes.
A departing megastar in Ray Lewis.
A record-setting quarterback, Joe Flacco, finally reaching the NFL’s biggest stage, where he’ll face off against Colin Kaepernick, a player representing the new wave at football’s glamour position.
Dynamic defenses and big-play offenses.
A return to New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina devastated the area.
A touch of history as the San Francisco 49ers (13-4-1) seek their sixth Super Bowl title when they meet the Baltimore Ravens (13-6) next Sunday at the Superdome.
And an unprecedented sibling rivalry, with Ravens Coach John Harbaugh guiding his AFC champions against his younger brother, Jim, and the NFC champ 49ers.
“I really don’t have any words for it,” said Ravens safety Ed Reed, who will play in his first Super Bowl at age 34.
Others will have millions of words to write and say about a matchup featuring fierce defenses, potent offenses and story lines worthy of America’s unofficial sports holiday.
And guess who will ignore all those themes? The guys on the field.
“All of the side stories, if you aren’t playing in the game, I guess that’s great,” said Ravens center Matt Birk, who gets to his initial title game at age 36. “You can enjoy that. I think as players we are just going to hunker down, and focus in and concentrate on the task at hand.”
While everyone else revels in the plot twists.
Such as Lewis, 37, announcing the end of his Hall of Fame-quality career, stoking the emotional fire in teammates and recapturing the level of play he had in his prime during three playoff wins. Lewis has 44 tackles in the playoffs after missing 10 weeks with a torn right triceps.
After performing his ritual dance before his second Super Bowl – he was the MVP of the 2001 game when the Ravens won their only title – Lewis seeks a last vintage performance.
“Ray’s been here since the beginning of this franchise,” safety Bernard Pollard said. “He’s a guy who is The Raven.”
When Lewis leaves, it will be up to Flacco to grab the reins, if he’s still in Baltimore. The only quarterback to win playoff games in each of his first five seasons plays out his contract next Sunday.
Not a bad place to do it, under sports’ most glaring spotlight. Should he win, the dollar signs on his deal will be astronomical.
Flacco succeeds away from Baltimore in the postseason: His six victories on the road are the most for any quarterback.
“I think every year when you get ready to go, you visualize it and you visualize yourself playing football at this time of year,” he said, “and it’s a tough deal to get to. But we have made it this far and we just have to make the most of it.”
Trying to prevent that will be an opponent steeped in Super Bowl success, albeit not recently. A 49ers victory gives them six rings, tying the Pittsburgh Steelers for most in the Super Bowl era. And the Niners never have lost the big game.
Still, their most recent championship was 18 years ago, with a guy named Steve Young at quarterback. Before that the four titles came with another Hall of Famer, Joe Montana, throwing passes.
Now it’s Colin Kaepernick, the heavily tattooed second-year signal caller – his favorite tattoo says, “My gift is my curse.”
“I just feel like that’s something that applies to my life in many different ways,” he said.
Kaepernick far more resembles Young than Montana. He has Young’s elusiveness but he also is bigger, has a stronger arm, and his long, powerful strides when he takes off downfield would do Usain Bolt proud.
Like Flacco, Kaepernick owns a postseason record, rushing for 181 yards in a divisional-round victory over Green Bay. Then he helped beat Atlanta with his arm to get the Niners back to the Super Bowl.
“Being an NFL quarterback, there’s a lot of advantages that come with it,” Kaepernick said. “There are a lot of doors that open when you’re a quarterback, but at the same time you’re under a lot of scrutiny.”
Just like the coaches, particularly in this one. There’s no escaping the Harbowl, nor will there be as Super Bowl week swings into full gear.
Sons of a highly successful college coach, Jack Harbaugh, they have taken vastly different routes to get to the top. John, who is older than Jim by 15 months, is a career coach who earned his current position with the Ravens largely because of his special-teams work in Philadelphia. Among the candidates he beat out for the Ravens job was Rex Ryan.
John Harbaugh has led Baltimore to the postseason in all five of his years as coach, an unprecedented achievement.
Jim was a first-round draft pick by Chicago in 1987 out of Michigan. He quarterbacked four NFL teams before heading into coaching, and was a winner at San Diego – the Toreros, not the Chargers – and Stanford before San Francisco hired him in 2011.
Last season he took the Niners to the NFC title game. This year they took that huge next step.
So this year’s family reunion comes early, and in New Orleans.
“Oh, man, I know that they’re very proud, I know that either way they’re going to feel for the one that loses and they’re going to be happy for the other,” 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. “But at the end of the day they’re all family, and you bring a Super Bowl ring back to the family.”
New Orleans has been a big part of the Super Bowl for decades. This will be the 10th time it has been held in the Big Easy, but the first in 11 years.
When Katrina ravaged the region, the NFL was adamant that the Saints would return – they did in 2006 after a full season on the road – and so would the Super Bowl once New Orleans was ready for it.
Here it is.
After the Ravens qualified, Reed and receiver Jacoby Jones celebrated more than a conference title. They rejoiced about one very special trip home to play in the biggest game of their lives.
“I rushed into the locker room to call my mom because I know that my family has been going through some things,” Reed said, “so I’m just thankful to be going home, and for the whole of New Orleans to see some hometown guys. Jacoby, we talked about it. We haven’t been there since Katrina. We’re just grateful.”