The story sounds almost preposterous — two sons of a lifelong football coach reach the highest level of the profession they inherited from dad and face each other in the biggest game on the planet.
But that's exactly what will happen in two weeks when John Harbaugh's Ravens and Jim Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers meet in New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII.
The Ravens made this fantasy a reality Sunday evening with a deeply satisfying win over the same New England Patriots who sent them home in bitter defeat at the end of last season. It was a thrilling win for the city of Baltimore, where fans have waited 12 years to watch the Ravens make a second trip to the Super Bowl.
The 28-13 victory in Foxborough, Mass., not only set up the first brother-against-brother showdown in Super Bowl history, it also guaranteed that linebacker Ray Lewis' glorious 17-year career as the face of the Ravens will end on the biggest stage possible.
Lewis, who announced his coming retirement just before the playoffs, beamed on the sidelines as it became clear he would play another game. Ravens fans who had traveled to Foxborough serenaded their team with its unofficial theme song, "Seven Nation Army."
Quarterback Joe Flacco played another exceptional road playoff game in leading the Ravens back from a 13-7 halftime deficit. The Patriots and their sure Hall-of-Fame quarterback Tom Brady had no answer as Flacco finished three straight drives with touchdown passes.
The Ravens had craved a chance to rewrite the ending of last season, when they left Foxborough in defeat after a stripped touchdown pass and a missed 32-yard-field-goal attempt in the game's waning seconds. After 12 months of debilitating injuries, abrupt personnel changes and wildly inconsistent play, they somehow found themselves back on the same field against the same team, a trip to the Super Bowl again on the line.
The Ravens believed they were a more resilient team this time around. And sure enough, they did not allow the result to hang in the balance until the game's final moments.
Jim Harbaugh kept his end of the bargain earlier Sunday when his San Francisco 49ers overcame a 17-0 deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 in the NFC Championship Game earlier Sunday.
As John watched his younger brother's victory on the video screen in Foxborough, he offered congratulations via a CBS camera. "You're a great coach," he said to Jim. "I love you."
The brothers, separated by only 15 months, shared a bedroom as boys and learned the game from their father Jack, who assisted the great Bo Schembechler at the University of Michigan and went on to win a Division I-AA national title as the head coach at Western Kentucky.
Both men still mail game film to their father every week and await his notes on their respective teams.
Jim was the better athlete, a Heisman Trophy candidate at Michigan and an NFL quarterback for 15 years, including one with the Ravens. He also has the bolder personality, sometimes rubbing opposing coaches the wrong way with his competitiveness.
While Jim played in the NFL, John paid his dues as an assistant at five colleges and with the Philadelphia Eagles. He had begun to wonder if he'd ever become a head coach when the Ravens called in 2008.
The Harbaugh brothers have achieved remarkable success in their combined seven seasons as NFL head coaches. Neither has ever failed to make the playoffs. They met once before on Thanksgiving night 2011, a 16-6 Ravens win at M&T Bank Stadium. Fueled by the family storyline, the game drew the largest audience in the history of the NFL Network.
Their parents, Jack and Jackie, attended the game but watched out of public view, not wanting to betray favoritism for either son at any moment. On Sunday, they watched the 49ers and Ravens on television from their home in Mequon, Wis.
Jim Harbaugh's 49ers will present stark challenges for the Ravens in pure football terms on Feb. 3 in New Orleans. Their hard-hitting defense ranked second in the league in fewest points allowed and third in fewest yards allowed. Midway through the season, Harbaugh made the bold call to switch quarterbacks, inserting dynamic second-year man Colin Kaepernick as his starter.
Baltimore fans cheered as the seconds ticked down in the 49ers game, shouting "Harbaugh Bowl!" as they dreamed of a showdown between the brothers.
"Step one is complete," said Barry Parker of South Baltimore, watching the 49ers celebrate their victory on the flat screens at Ropewalk Tavern in Federal Hill.
"That's definitely what we want to see, the Harbaugh Bowl," said his buddy, Darren Eynon of Federal Hill.
Fans were ready to party, waiting in long lines outside the popular Ravens bars in Federal Hill as game time with the Patriots neared. Baltimore police closed a section of South Charles Street in anticipation of fans spilling into the road as they did after the Ravens' thrilling Divisional playoff win over the Denver Broncos.
At Ropewalk, fans were so charged up that they cheered any glimpse of a Raven during CBS' pre-game coverage. They came unhinged when they saw Lewis looking deeply moved during the national anthem. They were less thrilled with video of Billy Cundiff's missed field goal at the end of last year's AFC Championship loss against the Patriots.
"Same game, different outcome," muttered Tim Barker of Canton.
Parker and Eynon worked the superstitious angle, wearing the same clothes and watching from the same seats as they did during the previous weekend's win over the Broncos. Parker noted that his gray tabby cat, Riffraff, was also wearing the same Ray Rice jersey at home.
"They haven't lost since we put that jersey on him," he said.
Both men said it was important for the Ravens to win now, because the team will look considerably different next season.
"We need to get these guys their rings," said Eynon. "Before they retire."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun