Maybe it was the long odds that the Ravens overcame to defeat the top two teams in the AFC and advance to the Super Bowl. Maybe it was just the fact that they trounced the New England Patriots and gave them a taste of what Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have been cooking over the past decade.
Whatever caused Ravens fans to spill out onto the streets of Federal Hill on Sunday night, the huge crowd of revelers proved that — despite the great bond they have developed with this inspiring team — there is a big difference in the way the fans and the players view this heady moment in Ravens history.
The fans might as well have hoisted a "Mission Accomplished" banner above Mother's Grille. The Ravens have come up short in two previous AFC title games during the John Harbaugh era, so the Super Bowl is a prize in itself.
It's a chance for Baltimore to spend the next two weeks at the center of the sports universe. It's the historic opportunity to watch two brothers coach against each other on football's greatest stage. This time, it's definitely going to be the final game of Ray Lewis' career.
No doubt, some of the same emotions were percolating in the visiting locker room Sunday at Gillette Stadium, but the Ravens were already getting back down to business by early afternoon Monday.
"Hopefully, I guess you realize the moment and appreciate it,'' said center Matt Birk, "but then obviously get to work."
Don't misunderstand. The players and coaches know what they accomplished in Denver and Foxborough, Mass., and they're all too aware of all the human interest subplots that have dominated the media conversation throughout this uplifting postseason. They're still trying to wrap their arms around the magnitude of it all, but just aren't built to spend much time congratulating themselves when the the biggest prize is still out there.
Joe Flacco, whose clutch performance in the second half of Sunday night's 28-13 victory removed whatever reservations remained about his status as one of football's elite quarterbacks, already was shaking off all the testimonials that came with back-to-back victories over the two most storied quarterbacks in the league.
"We're going out as a team and trying to get to the point we are at right now, and we have to get one more," Flacco said. "I don't know if it's vindication. We're just going out and playing football and having a lot of fun doing it and I think we're playing well."
Owner Steve Bisciotti clearly was enjoying himself during the postgame trophy ceremony, but he also has set the bar a little bit higher than the AFC title during his time as owner, and made that clear when he fired coach Brian Billick a little more than five years ago.
"I've got some catching up to do to the man that I asked to step down today," Bisciotti said back then. "The jury's out on me. Brian's already got his Super Bowl."
He was talking about winning it, not just playing in it.
Harbaugh was already focused on the horizon when he took questions at his weekly news conference at the Under Armour Performance Center on Monday afternoon. The Ravens may have two weeks to prepare for the San Francisco 49ers, but there is a lot of peripheral stuff that comes into play during the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl.
"We'll be preparing this week as if we are playing a game this week," he said. "We'll be going to work right away. The destination is a 3 1/2 to 4-hour window two weeks from yesterday, but we'll have to be as far down the road in our preparation this week as we possibly can and try to take advantage of every minute we possibly can to get ready to play this team."
That will be a challenge in itself, with so many demands and so many storylines that don't really have anything to do with the actual game. Harbaugh already was jokingly trying to deflect the Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh questions Monday, but he'll be buried under them when he gets to New Orleans.
For the next 12 days, the players and coaches will be asked for their opinions on just about everything from the "The Ray Lewis Effect" to the anguished Twitter posts of the Real Housewives of Gillette Stadium, but they'll be focused on only one thing — getting to the trophy stand at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
"All of the side stories, if you aren't playing in the game, I guess that's great," Birk said. "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."
Not even close.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.