The Ravens arrived at their team facility in Owings Mills Monday morning, short on sleep but long on adrenaline and anticipation.
It had been less than 24 hours since the Ravens' 28-13 victory over the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in the AFC championship game, and the magnitude of their accomplishment and what lies ahead still hadn't completely sunk in.
Veteran center Matt Birk, who has played 15 seasons and delayed retirement to get the chance to go to the Super Bowl, admitted that he was still "kind of numb." Seventh-year safety Bernard Pollard signed with Baltimore two seasons ago because he wanted to play for a title. As of Monday afternoon, he still hadn't come to grips with the fact that he'd get that opportunity in less than two weeks.
Then there was quarterback Joe Flacco, clearly operating on only a few hours of sleep because his cell phone had been buzzing almost nonstop since the end of Sunday night's game in which he rallied the Ravens from a 13-7 deficit by throwing three second-half touchdowns.
"I think we're still on a little bit of a high from the game," Flacco said. "I don't know if anybody quite believed it yet, but it's pretty real."
The Ravens and San Francisco 49ers will meet in Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on Feb. 3, a game pitting teams with similar styles and two head-coaching brothers separated by 15 months. It will be the Ravens' second Super Bowl appearance and their first in 12 years.
It didn't appear to be the path that the Ravens would take about a month ago when they entered the playoffs having lost four of their past five games. Their offense was so inconsistent that Ravens coach John Harbaugh fired his offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, with three games remaining in the regular season. Their defense was decimated by injuries and was nowhere near the intimidating group that had long been one of the gold standards in the NFL.
But Flacco caught fire — he's thrown eight touchdowns and no interceptions in three playoff games — and middle linebacker Ray Lewis' return has rejuvenated the defense. The Ravens dominated the Indianapolis Colts, 24-9, at home in their playoff opener, traveled out West and shocked the Denver Broncos, 38-35, in two overtimes in the second round and then booked their trip to New Orleans with a commanding all-around performance Sunday against the Patriots.
The Ravens rattled off the game's final 21 points, forced three fourth-quarter turnovers and then shut out New England over the final 30 minutes.
"It was a great win. I'm feeling great about it," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "I thought the Patriots had a tremendous season. They are a great football team led by a great coach and a great quarterback. To win up there in that environment is a great accomplishment. I think our guys have done a tremendous job all year of battling through adversity and overcoming the tough things that really make you become a close football team. That's what it was — it was a team victory. It wasn't about one guy, it wasn't about any group of guys, it wasn't about one side of the ball. It was about a football team playing really good football in one of the biggest moments that football has to offer, and that's what I'm so proud of as a football coach."
Harbaugh said that he hadn't spoken to his younger brother, Jim, the coach of the 49ers, since both teams captured conference championships. But he understands that storyline will be one of the prevailing topics in the days leading up to the game. John's Ravens beat Jim's 49ers, 16-6, on Thanksgiving night last season in the first ever matchup between NFL coaching brothers.
But the stakes will be significantly different Feb. 3. The Ravens spent Monday in staff meetings about how they'll handle the pomp and circumstance surrounding Super Bowl week.
"As far as the schedule goes, we will be preparing this week as if we are playing the game this week," John Harbaugh said. "So, that's how you do it. We'll be going to work right away. The destination is a three-and-a-half to four-hour window two weeks from [Sunday] evening, but we'll have to get as far down the road in our preparation this week as we possibly can, and we'll try to take advantage of every minute we possibly can to get ready to play this team. This team that we are going to play is a great football team. They are extremely well-coached, I'd have to say. They look somewhat familiar in a lot of ways. Jim has done a great job with the team. I'm proud of him."
Harbaugh has asked his players to try to finalize ticket and travel arrangements over the next couple of days so when the team returns to practice Thursday, the logistical issues will be behind them. The Ravens are expected to head to New Orleans on Monday.
"We are going to see what's happening on Wednesday, but we have to roll," Pollard said. "We have to get going. Coach is going to do a good job, as far as in practice, kind of lightening things up or whatever. But when it's all said and done, we are facing a great team. They're coming to kill. We have to be ready to play. If we want to play our best football, our preparation the rest of this week and next week has to be outstanding if we want to show up on Super Bowl Sunday."
The only four Ravens to have Super Bowl-playing experience are Lewis and fellow linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo (with the Chicago Bears), safety James Ihedigbo (with the New England Patriots) and wide receiver Anquan Boldin (with the Arizona Cardinals). Lewis is the only one who has a Super Bowl ring, from the Ravens victory over the New York Giants to end the 2000 season.
The Ravens do have seven coaches on staff who have participated in the Super Bowl, including Harbaugh, who went during the 2004 season as the special teams coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles.
"That's the goal, that's your dream, that's why you play," Birk said. "Nobody deserves it more than anybody else. It doesn't matter how long you play. Every year getting close and getting close to finally break through, it's pretty special."
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