Monday, February 4, 2013

Lights Out! Ravens, Flacco Sends Ray Lewis Out On Top

It’s no better way, as a champ, to go out on top and ride off into the sunset. It’s a refreshing story for the greatest middle linebacker of all time, Ray Lewis, who will leave the game in style. He finally gets to the Super Bowl after winning a championship ring 13 years ago as a Raven. He finally rejoices in a gratifying moment, only to be part of a team that has a gifted quarterback.

The folks in Baltimore won’t ever forget Joe Flacco’s fantastic postseason run. From zero to hero, he’s on the rise and stole the show on Super Bowl Sunday, completing a postseason of perfection and competence. He won the game, as well as the MVP award, which was well deserving considering that he was flawless and at ease on a night that much was on the line, on a night that meant so much to Lewis.

“It’s simple: When God is for you, who can be against you?” Lewis said, grappling the Lombardi Trophy. “It’s no greater way, as a champ, to go out on your last ride with the men that I went out with, with my teammates. And you looked around this stadium and … Baltimore! Baltimore! We coming home, baby! We did it!”

The story of Ray Lewis and a clash between John and Jim Harbaugh have been remarkable tales all week at Super Bowl XLVII, a couple of feel-good narratives of a vocal leader and the first ever brother vs. brother coaching duel in Super Bowl history. There is a lot more to John Harbaugh, the strategist who coaches the Baltimore Ravens, and to Lewis, the authentic, enthusiastic, intense demigod who pumps up his teammates. That much came to light when he energized and encouraged his team during his pregame speech before the game. And the fact John built a perennial winner in Baltimore and beat his little brother to capture his first Super Bowl title is a great feeling to him, and even though Jim couldn’t beat his big brother, he’s a winner, too, as he can celebrate and enjoy the night with his family.

For the last time, Lewis gathered his teammates around in a huddle and gave his usual inspirational speech. For the last time, before he walked off the field permanently, he stood on an elevated stage at midfield and lifted the Lombardi Trophy with grace and satisfaction, as the confetti poured onto the artificial turf from the roof of the Superdome in the Big Easy. The last we’ve seen an overjoyed Lewis, a 25-year-old at the peak of his game, was when he led Baltimore to Super Bowl triumph, bringing home the stainless steel to a population of Baltimore faithful.

It was fitting — amid the dominant storylines told all week — witnessing O.J. Brigance being escorted onto the field and celebrating from the confines of his wheelchair. The former Ravens linebacker, who is now the Ravens’ senior advisor on player development, is suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and has been a source of inspiration throughout the team’s improbable run to the Super Bowl.

The Ravens clobbering and beating down the 49ers early had reached insanity with Flacco’s Ravens vehemently controlling the momentum, a look at Baltimore’s offensive juggernauts, a look at the far more superior team. The score was 28-6, all Ravens, followed by a blackout and the 49ers’ 17-point rally to show resilience, and they nearly pulled off the sweetest comeback in Super Bowl history. For a surging run that appeared to be impossible to stop, the Ravens ended the 49ers’ night at their own goal line. In the end, although the power outage might have disrupted and shifted the game’s momentum, the Ravens, as a whole collectively, survived a rally and preserved a lead to hold on and secure a flourishing win. Over on the sideline, John, the older brother, yelled at an official during his outburst and was irate over the fact a long delay could have killed momentum. Across the way, Jim, the younger brother, screamed at the officials and argued a pass interference no-call. Maybe receiver Michael Crabtree was bumped in the end zone on the 49ers’ last offensive play.

Where there’s agony, there’s also happiness. The Ravens, with a number of players who’ve been yearning for Super Bowl titles over the years, are still smiling about the ride to a tremendous sense of greatness. So it seems natural that, in perspective of this game, Lewis would break down into tears emotionally and shout, “We did it!” in response to his teammates, and that veteran safety Ed Reed would watch the confetti fall from the ceiling with his arms extended.

“How could it be any other way? It’s never pretty. It’s never perfect. But it’s us,” John Harbaugh said after winning the brother vs. brother clash with younger brother Jim. “It was us today.”

When it was over, Jim walked to the middle of the field to meet his brother, briefly shook hands and kindly exchanged words. The inaugural Harbowl — in a delayed game — was suspended more than half an hour because of a power outage following BeyoncĂ©’s halftime show that consumed more and more electricity, using thousands of blue lights that some think turned off the lights and left thousands in the dark. The Ravens, the unified, cohesive darlings when it comes to America embracing a team since Lewis announced he will be calling it quits at the end of the season, simply are treating this victory like it was the last football game ever played.

“It’s no greater way, as a champ, to go out on your last ride with the men that I went out with, with my teammates,” Lewis said emotionally. “And you looked around this stadium and Baltimore! Baltimore! We coming home, baby! We did it!”

Every so often, in America’s most popular sport, we are coerced into worshipping Peyton and Eli Manning, the sons of Saints legend Archie — applauding two iconic quarterbacks who won Super Bowls and became the ultimate megastars as advertised. All week, though, the Manning family wasn’t a bittersweet tale of Super Bowl XLVII. The central theme of this particular game was the Harbaughs, and after the Ravens beat San Francisco in a 34-31 thriller, Flacco was an unsung hero throwing a record-tying 11 touchdowns in the playoffs, with no interceptions. That’s what wins championships. That’s what solidifies legacies and allows a player to earn a raise or a megabuck deal with a team, desperately undaunted enough to spend millions as a way to lure pro athletes.

On greater imports, Flacco stepped into his role on offense and carried a team that had a veteran, aging defense. For perspective’s sake, he’s won Baltimore a Super Bowl — and because of his accuracy, arm strength, guts and self-assurance — the Ravens can touch the glittery trophy and Lewis seizes the moment. With Lewis’ NFL career proudly drawing to a close, Flacco, who quarterbacked the Ravens to sheer greatness and delivered when it mattered the most, is gradually becoming a dictator of a well-executed passing game and is becoming a franchise quarterback. It ended, at last, in New Orleans, with a fledged, poised individual, the 28-year-old who was — including this season — viewed as a polarizing figure as many believed Flacco was unfit for greatness. The run is not over, and as it turns out, he’s quickly emerging into a superstar in pro football.

“I’m a Joe Flacco fan. I’ve been a Joe Flacco fan,” Lewis said. “For him to come in and do what he did today, and made some of the throws he made, that is what we’ve always seen. We’ve always said that when you win a championship, one man won’t win the ring. It will be a complete team. We won as a complete team.”

The debates and doubts ended when he connected with Anquan Boldin 13 yards for a touchdown and when he flipped a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dennis Pitta. Nobody has had a more humiliating week than 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, from his anti-gay comments to getting beat twice, particularly on an electrifying 56-yard touchdown catch by Jacoby Jones in the first half. He also missed a tackle on Jones’ record-setting 108-yard kickoff return that gave the Ravens a 28-6 lead. Having a breakout performance in the most meaningful game, Flacco has certainly wedged himself in elite company and contract talks are now heavy, and he’s likely about to get paid.

How good was he? He was super.

And having said that, Flacco was 22 for 33 for 287 yards and finished with three touchdowns. It was one shinning moment, and it was a moment that he went from low-level to top-notch by standards, impressively dominating and outdoing 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. It was an eyebrow-raising moment, a game where he was unruffled and didn’t throw a pick, moving the ball and delivering scoring passes. It’s about Lewis, but this particular night was more about Flacco.

In Flacco, we trust.