Ravens fans had waited 12 years for another Super Bowl victory, and they packed the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, dwarfing 49ers rooters in both numbers and volume.
They about blew the roof off the stadium when Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco flicked his first touchdown pass as the team began its march to a commanding halftime lead. Then Baltimore — the team and its fans — held on for dear life.
Down by 22 points early in the second half, the 49ers staged a furious comeback that fell just short as the Ravens held on to win, 34-31.
"How could it be any other way?" Ravens coach John Harbaugh said on the field afterward. "It's never pretty. It's never perfect. But it is us."
It was a wild night on the field and off. The power inexplicably went out at the Superdome in the third quarter, plunging the cavernous arena into semi-darkness and delaying the game for more than half an hour.
Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones, a son of New Orleans, set a Super Bowl record with an electrifying 108-yard kickoff return, not long after hauling in a bomb of a touchdown pass from Flacco.
And Flacco delivered a performance that will put him just behind Johnny Unitas in the memories of Baltimore fans, tossing three touchdowns in the first half and earning Super Bowl MVP honors.
"We don't make anything easy," Flacco said. "It was a hard-fought game on both sides. I think we gave the country a pretty good game to watch. Not to our liking necessarily, but that's the way it goes sometimes and that's the way we do things."
After the win, celebrations erupted in the French Quarter and in Fells Point, where some people swung from light posts as drivers blared their horns. Fans will have another chance to fete the Ravens on Tuesday with a parade set to start at 11 a.m. from City Hall, city officials said.
The victory put an exclamation point on the unparalleled career of linebacker Ray Lewis and gave special bragging rights to Harbaugh, who faced his younger brother, Jim, in the first fraternal coaching match-up in Super Bowl history.
Lewis played in the Ravens' debut game at Memorial Stadium and after 17 years of controversy, strutting dances and brilliant defensive play, he ended his ride on the biggest stage in football. He was the only player left on the field Sunday who also played in the Ravens' previous Super Bowl victory in 2001.
"How else would you finish that off but with a goal-line stand?" Lewis said of preventing the 49ers from scoring a touchdown in the final minutes. "And we finished that off. We kept them out of the end zone on the two-yard line. That is championship football."
The Harbaugh brothers shared a bedroom for 16 years, their lives divided by a piece of tape that bisected the space. Jim was always the superstar, playing quarterback in the NFL and zooming up the coaching ranks while John doggedly accumulated experience over 24 years as an assistant.
But in the Superdome, it was John who beamed amid falling confetti as Jim left the field in defeat, sure to be consoled by his father, Jack, a longtime college coach and role model for both brothers.
As time expired, fans began celebrating in the Superdome stands. "Our heads are about to blow off," exulted Shawn Marvel, 47, of Nottingham, alongside his girlfriend Katie Halen, 45, of Lewes, Del.
Silver confetti streams and purple lights seemed to mirror the thrill of Ravens fans, who saw the team's dominant early lead stall during a 34-minute power outage, and the 49ers nearly come back when power and play resumed.
"We're just glad to be part of a game with Ray Lewis. We love him. We love the whole Baltimore Ravens organization," said Marvel, a food company salesman. "There is love all over the universe for the Ravens. We're so happy to be here."
The game's dramatic finish nearly wiped out James Bond, 47, a Towson native who lives in Washington. He went from clutching his heart in the final seconds of the game, unable to talk to his friends, to throwing his arms in the air with a big shout — "Yea!" — when the Ravens won.
"It stopped beating a little," said Bond, tapping his chest underneath the Mardi Gras beads hanging from his neck. He was hardly the only one barely able to watch the final, heart-stopping minutes. "He was 37 when he walked in here, and he had a full head of hair," Bond joked about his friend, David Raszewski, who is in fact 47 and has less than a full head of hair.
Outside the stadium, the party had begun long before the game even started.
Baltimore fans overran this festive city, with No. 52 Lewis jerseys appearing on every corner and purple beads cascading from the balconies of Bourbon Street. They seemed to outnumber their San Francisco counterparts almost 2-1. During Alicia Keys' spare rendition of the national anthem, they unleashed a thunderous "O" cheer.
Before the game, the high-decibel introductions quieted as third- and fourth-graders from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut sang "America The Beautiful" in honor of their fallen classmates and teachers.
Some of the 71,024-plus spectators removed their caps, bowed their heads and closed their eyes as the 26 children sang to remember the 26 students and faculty who were slain in the worst school massacre in U.S. history.
It was an improbable championship run for the Ravens. Left for dead in December, the team disposed of a generation's two greatest quarterbacks, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, on their respective home fields. They were underdogs again in the Super Bowl against the swift and punishing 49ers.
The Ravens played the game knowing that, win or lose, they won't be the same team next season. The absence of Lewis, the vocal leader and face of the franchise, will be most noticed from the outside. But safety Ed Reed, an equally adept defender and trusted mentor to younger teammates, could also depart to retirement or free agency. Fittingly, he notched another interception Sunday.
Flacco is a free agent as well, and though no one expects him to leave after a standout postseason, his contract status will be a hot topic until it's resolved.
The Ravens would love to re-sign linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, defensive end Paul Kruger and cornerback Cary Williams but will likely lose at least two of the three young defenders because of salary cap constraints.
None of that mattered much on a near-perfect weekend that began Saturday with the induction of Jonathan Ogden, the Ravens' first-ever draft pick, to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Ravens had seemed comfortable and confident all week, grinning their way past allegations that Lewis had obtained performance-enhancing drugs to rehabilitate his torn triceps.
On Saturday night, they watched highlights of their own season for inspiration — Torrey Smith's two touchdowns the night after his brother died, Ray Rice's 29-yard scamper to bail them out in San Diego, Flacco's desperation heave in the waning seconds in Denver.
It was a thrilling ride, made all the more dramatic because it seemed about to derail in December, when injuries piled up and the Ravens lost three games in a row.
At the Superdome, anxious fans had plenty to cheer about early in the Super Bowl. After the Ravens scored a touchdown on their first drive, Susan Drew, 47 of Bel Air, said she could breathe a bit easier — but only a bit.
"I like a little bit of a cushion," said Drew, an emergency room nurse at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center who traveled to New Orleans with seven friends and neighbors.
Then came the second touchdown: "Then I felt like I could at least leave my seat and go to the bathroom."
Her neighbor Mike Ortt, 56, wearing a purple shock wig, claimed never to have had a moment of anxiety. "We got this," he declared, already hoarse from screaming before the first half ended. "We are the best team, and it's our year."
A thousand miles away in Federal Hill, things got a little crazy at Banditos Tacos and Tequila bar after the Ravens' third touchdown of the game — the one Jones caught — put the team up 21-3. Patrons opened up purple cans of National Bohemian beer and sprayed the crowd. No one seemed to mind.
By halftime, fans at the South Charles Street bar were cautiously optimistic.
"They're looking good so far, but I don't want to jinx anything," said Lorien Baker. "Anything could happen."