NEW ORLEANS – The journey to this Super Bowl wound through bounties and replacement refs, eventually bringing the big game back to the Big Easy — with a replacement quarterback, a sibling rivalry and a grand exit for one of the NFL’s greatest players, clouded by the obscure healing powers of deer-antler spray.
It is a Super Bowl of comebacks, of firsts and lasts, and — if San Francisco wins — the best.
A win over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday would give the 49ers six championships, matching Pittsburgh’s titles in the Super Bowl era. Unlike the Steelers, the Niners have never lost one.
Of course, they haven’t won one in 18 years, either.
“There’s a tradition with the San Francisco 49ers, but I think these guys are paving their own way,” said Hall of Fame receiver and three-time champion Jerry Rice. “They’re playing with a lot of swagger.”
Or as owner Denise DeBartolo York said, “We’ve come full circle and the dynasty will prevail.”
New Orleans has come full circle, too. Ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, losing a quarter of its population, abandoned by the Saints for an entire season, the city couldn’t imagine hosting another Super Bowl. But as New Orleans recovered and rebuilt, it envisioned staging what Patriots owner Robert Kraft calls “the pre-eminent sporting event.”
The NFL agreed it was time to return. And even if Commissioner Roger Goodell is despised here after slapping the Saints with suspensions and fines in the bounty scandal, the vibes from the French Quarter and Warehouse District this week have been supportive, even uplifting.
“It’s also terrific for us to be back here in New Orleans,” Goodell said, joking about voodoo dolls in his likeness. “Our 10th Super Bowl here, the first since Katrina, and it’s clear this city is back bigger and better than ever.”
There’s the tale of the head coaching brothers, Baltimore’s John and San Francisco’s Jim, the first siblings to face off in a Super Bowl. And Ray Lewis, the pre-eminent linebacker of his generation on his self-proclaimed last ride.
“There are so many storylines to this game that make it bigger than just the Super Bowl,” 49ers CEO Jed York said.
Such as the Harbaughs plot about sons of a lifetime coach who took different paths to the top of the NFL.
John, older by 15 months, has made his career standing on the sideline with a headset. He’s the only head coach to win playoff games in his first five seasons; his quarterback, Joe Flacco, has the same distinction as he heads into his first Super Bowl.
Jim Harbaugh was a first-round draft pick and quarterbacked four teams in 14 pro seasons before going into coaching. He was an immediate success at San Diego — the Toreros in the college Pioneer League, not the Chargers in the NFL — and Stanford before the 49ers won a bidding war for him in 2011.
This week’s family reunion has been light-hearted, though that figures to change Sunday.
“It’s probably a little tougher emotionally,” John Harbaugh said of facing his brother. “It’s a little tougher just from the sense of I don’t think you think about it when you’re coaching against somebody else; it’s more about the scheme and the strategy. There’s a little bit of a relationship element that’s more strong than maybe coaching against someone else.
“I’ll have a better answer for you after the game. I’ve never been through this before. This is all new.”
And oh-so-new for the QBs, Flacco and Colin Kaepernick.
Flacco is no fluke, holding the career record for road playoff wins with six. But until outplaying Peyton Manning and Tom Brady this year, he hadn’t gotten the Ravens to the Super Bowl. He has eight touchdown passes and no interceptions this postseason, padding a resume that soon will make him a very highly paid quarterback: Flacco’s contract expires after this game.
“I think when you talk about winning as quarterbacks in the playoffs,” Flacco said, “I would think that all of them have Super Bowl victories. So that’s really the only one that matters, and that’s what we’re trying to get.”
Naturally, so are the 49ers (13-4-1), whose midseason adoption of the pistol offense to best use Kaepernick’s dynamic versatility added a dimension no one has been able to stop. The Niners might never have taken such a huge step had incumbent Alex Smith, in the midst of his best season, not sustained a concussion on Nov. 11.
Kaepernick took over and the offense took off.
Once Smith was healthy, he no longer was the starter. Jim Harbaugh gambled by sticking with Kaepernick, a raw second-year quarterback who brought more game-breaking skills to the position.
Difficult decisions like that are sometimes foolhardy, sometimes inspired.
This one worked superbly, and Kaepernick stands one victory from joining Joe Montana and Steve Young as a 49er Super Bowl champion.
“It was tough watching this team do well and not being able to contribute,” said Kaepernick, more recognized before his promotion for his collection of tattoos than for his strong arm and sprinter’s speed. “For me, what kept me going was the fact that I might get an opportunity to get out there. When I did, I needed to take advantage of it.”
Lewis will put on his No. 52 for the final time and see if he can replicate Baltimore’s last championship of a dozen years ago.
“You can never top the first one, because that’s an unknown feeling,” Lewis said before adding with a chuckle, eyes widening, “but a second one — that might be the only way you really can top it.”