Riding a wave of emotion and Joe Flacco’s cool leadership, the Baltimore Ravens held off a furious rally to give retiring linebacker Ray Lewis a Cinderella sendoff by defeating the San Francisco 49ers, 34-31, Sunday night in the New Orleans Superdome.
In the first contest featuring teams coached by brothers, it was Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers who came out uncharacteristically flat, making mental errors and generally seeming overmatched by the moment. Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw an interception that veteran safety Ed Reed returned for a touchdown early in the contest. It was Reed’s ninth career playoff interception, a mark that tied a record.
As he has throughout the playoffs, Flacco, who was named MVP, was poised and in control.
He ended the evening 22-of-33 for 287 and 3 touchdowns, completing a playoff run in which he threw 11 touchdowns without an interception.
The victory served as a validation for Flacco, who, despite being the only quarterback in league history to win at least one playoff game in each of his first five seasons, has been repeatedly criticized.
That now is behind him, and Flacco’s desire for a contract that will pay him more than Peyton Manning’s $18 million per year no longer seems as unreasonable as it did before the game.
The game was really a story of two halves.
The first was all Ravens, while the second, especially after an unexpected blackout delayed the game, went to the 49ers.
After jumping out to a 21-6 lead, the Ravens extended their lead when Jacoby Jones took the opening kickoff a record 109 yards for a touchdown.
But the 49ers, who had overcome a 17-0 deficit against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship two weeks ago, settled in as their vaunted Pistol offense started to show why Harbaugh had made the decision to switch mid-season to Kaepernick over former number one overall pick Alex Smith.
Riding a touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree, a 6-yard scamper by the valiant Frank Gore and a 34-yard field goal by the often erratic David Akers, the San Francisco squad closed the margin to just five as the third quarter ended.
The fourth quarter saw the 49ers respond to a Justin Tucker field goal with another lightning score of their own, this one a 15-yard run to the corner by Kaepernick.
But, in a preview of their final stand, the Ravens pressured the young quarterback on the team’s two-point conversion attempt to Randy Moss, and Baltimore still led by two points.
After Flacco led a time-consuming drive that chewed up five minutes before stalling deep in 49ers territory, Tucker hit another field goal.
Four minutes and 80 yards remained for glory.
But the 49ers could only get 75.
After zooming downfield and getting a first and goal inside the 10-yard line, the 49ers took three shots at the end zone.
Each pass went to Crabtree.
Each fell incomplete.
The last one will live on in the minds of many, as cornerback Jimmy Smith appeared from all angles to hold the former Texas Tech star.
But no flag was thrown.
After three running plays and a safety, the kickoff went too deep for the 49ers to return, and the older brother’s team had defeated the younger one.
Lewis, who wrapped fellow linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had made his own recovery from tearing his Achilles tendon, in a long soulful hug.
It was a storybook ending to a fabled career that for some at least continues to be tarnished by what they see as Lewis’ role in the much-discussed incident 13 years ago that left two men dead, and, this week, with accusations of his having used banned substances in his rehabilitation from a torn triceps in October.
That and the no-call about Smith will continue to be debated.
But, in the end, the Ravens emerged as champions.