NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A National Football League (NFL) season where nothing seemed to follow the script has produced a classic Super Bowl encounter with a subplot fit for a Hollywood blockbuster.
Sunday’s game between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens will be the first time in the 47 years of the Super Bowl that two brothers will go head-to-head for the biggest prize in American Football, not on the field, but on the sidelines.
John Harbaugh is Baltimore’s head coach and his counterpart with San Francisco is younger brother Jim. Born just 15 months apart, the pair have been competing against each other all their lives but never with the stakes so high.
“Anybody who has a brother, especially one that’s close in age, gets it,” John told the massive media contingent assembled ahead of Sunday’s game in New Orleans.
“You just grow up fighting for everything. You fight for the extra hotdog. You fight for girls. You fight for everything. We both got our girls, but we both want a victory this week.”
Their sibling rivalry has dominated the build up to a game that has been dubbed the Har-Bowl, and Jim, like his brother, was happy to join in the irreverent discussions about their childhood battles.
“As to who won and who lost, I can’t remember. I have a hard time remembering what I did last Tuesday,” he said.
With a bit of luck, the brothers might have squared off in last year’s Super Bowl but the Ravens and 49ers both lost in the their respective conference championships that determine which two franchises advance to the title decider.
But fortune was on their side this season. Last year’s champions, the New York Giants, missed the playoffs and the 49ers easily saw off the Green Bay Packers, champions two years ago, in the divisional round at home, before erasing a 17-point deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons for the NFC championship.
The Ravens looked a forlorn hope of making it to the Super Bowl when they lost four of their last five regular season games but rediscovered their form when it mattered, surviving a double overtime nail biter against the Denver Broncos then upsetting the New England Patriots in the AFC decider.
Their amazing turnaround coincided with the return of their veteran linebacker Ray Lewis, who was named Most Valuable Player when the Ravens won their only Super Bowl in the 2000 season.
Lewis, the heart and soul of the franchise after 17 years with the Ravens, is retiring after the game. Doctors told him his career was already over when he tore his triceps during the regular season but he defied the odds to make it back for one last shot at a second title.
“The only thing on my mind is getting my teammates to touch the Lombardi Trophy. The retirement will take care of itself,” Lewis said. “When the clock hits triple zeros, no matter what happens, that will be my last ride. There is no greater stage to do it on.”
While Lewis has been the inspiration, quarterback Joe Flacco has been the architect of Baltimore’s stunning turnaround.
Boasting one of the strongest arms in the game, he has been finding his targets in crucial moments, despite remaining one of the most underrated and understated quarterbacks in the NFL.
“I don’t know if I would say I‘m dull, but I‘m probably close to it,” he told reporters.
No one is calling San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick boring. A fearless runner who kisses his heavily tattooed biceps whenever he passes for a touchdown or rushes for one himself, Kaepernick is enjoying a meteoric rise.
He started the season as the backup but did such a great job filling in for Alex Smith when the established starter suffered a concussion that he kept the job and developed an instant cult following in a sport where anything and everything a quarterback does is heavily scrutinized.
“Three months ago I could go anywhere,” he said. “Now it’s a little bit harder.”
Kaepernick is already being compared to Steve Young and Joe Montana, San Francisco’s Hall of Fame quarterbacks from the team’s golden era in the 1980s and early 1990s, adding to the burden of expectation on all his teammates.
The Niners won five Super Bowl titles in the period, just one short of the overall record held by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ominously, they have never lost a Super Bowl, but this will be their first appearance in 18 years.
Las Vegas bookmakers have installed San Francisco as slight favorites, although none of the odds makers are predicting the 49ers will have it all their own way in the Big Easy, the nickname for New Orleans.
The city is hosting the Super Bowl for the 10th time but the first since the Louisiana Gulf Coast region was devastated in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, which caused more than 1,800 deaths and billions of dollars in property damage.
The city has been rebuilt and the Superdome, the venue for Sunday’s game, became a refuge for thousands of people who lost their homes during the Hurricane, has undergone major renovations in preparation for the Super Bowl.
Officials estimate the Super Bowl will inject $434 million into the local economy and trigger another tourism boom.
Tens of thousands of visiting NFL fans are expected to flock to the bars and clubs on Bourbon St. in the city’s historic French Quarter, while an estimated worldwide audience of more than 160 million people will watch on television as the greatest extravaganza in American sport becomes a real family affair.
Editing by Frank Pingue