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Super Bowl of firsts, lasts, bests

Super Bowl of firsts, lasts, bests

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — This Super Bowl is one of comebacks, of firsts and lasts, and — if San Francisco wins — the best.

A win over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday gives the 49ers six championships, matching Pittsburgh's record number of titles in the Super Bowl era. Unlike the Steelers, the Niners have never lost one.

Of course, they haven't won one in 18 years, either.

"There's a tradition with the San Francisco 49ers, but these guys are paving their own way," said Hall of Fame receiver and three-time champion Jerry Rice. "They're playing with a lot of swagger."

Or as owner Denise DeBartolo York said, "We've come full circle and the dynasty will prevail."

Host city New Orleans has come full circle, too. Ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, losing a quarter of its population, abandoned by the Saints for an entire season, the city couldn't imagine hosting another Super Bowl. But as New Orleans recovered and rebuilt, it envisioned staging what Patriots owner Robert Kraft calls "the pre-eminent sporting event."

The NFL agreed it was time to return. And even if Commissioner Roger Goodell is despised here after slapping the Saints with suspensions and fines in the bounty scandal, the vibes from the French Quarter and Warehouse District this week have been supportive, even uplifting.

"It's also terrific for us to be back here in New Orleans," Goodell said, joking about voodoo dolls in his likeness. "Our 10th Super Bowl here, the first since Katrina, and it's clear this city is back bigger and better than ever."

There's the tale of the head coaching brothers, Baltimore's John and San Francisco's Jim, the first siblings to face off in a Super Bowl. And Ray Lewis, the pre-eminent linebacker of his generation on his self-proclaimed last ride with the Ravens. (His farewell party was somewhat sidetracked for two days this week when Lewis waved off a report that he tried to get unusual products like deer-antler spray to speed his recovery from an arm injury that sidelined him for 10 games.)

"There are so many storylines to this game that make it bigger than just the Super Bowl," 49ers CEO Jed York said.

Such as the Harbaughs, sons of a lifetime coach who took different paths to the top of the NFL.

Baltimore's John, older by 15 months, has made his career standing on the sideline with a headset. He's the only head coach to win playoff games in his first five seasons; his quarterback, Joe Flacco, has the same distinction as he heads into his first Super Bowl. Jim Harbaugh was a first-round draft pick and quarterbacked four teams in 14 pro seasons before going into coaching. He was an immediate success at the San Diego Toreros in the college Pioneer League, then at Stanford before the 49ers won a bidding war for him in 2011.

This week's family reunion has been light-hearted, though that will change Sunday.

"It's probably a little tougher emotionally," John Harbaugh said of facing his brother. "It's a little tougher just from the sense of I don't think you think about it when you're coaching against somebody else; it's more about the scheme and the strategy. There's a little bit of a relationship element that's more strong than maybe coaching against someone else.

"I'll have a better answer for you after the game. I've never been through this before. This is all new."

It's also new for the QBs, Flacco and Colin Kaepernick.

Flacco is no fluke, holding the career record for road playoff wins with six. But until outplaying Peyton Manning and Tom Brady this year, he hadn't gotten the Ravens to the Super Bowl. He has eight touchdown passes and no interceptions in the postseason, padding a resume that soon will make him one very highly paid quarterback: Flacco's contract expires after this game. Even with a franchise tag applied by Baltimore, he'll make about $14.6 million next season.

"When you talk about winning, as quarterbacks in the playoffs," Flacco said, "I would think that all of them have Super Bowl victories. So that's really the only one that matters, and that's what we're trying to get."

Naturally, so are the 49ers, whose midseason adoption of the pistol offense to best use Kaepernick's dynamic versatility added a dimension no one has been able to stop. The Niners might never have taken such a huge step had incumbent Alex Smith, in the midst of his best season, not sustained a concussion on Nov. 11. Kaepernick took over and the offense took off.

Once Smith was healthy, he no longer was the starter. Jim Harbaugh gambled by sticking with the raw second-year quarterback who brought more game-breaking skills to the position.

Difficult decisions like that are sometimes foolhardy, sometimes inspired.

This one worked superbly, and Kaepernick stands one victory from joining Joe Montana and Steve Young as a 49er Super Bowl champion.

"It was tough watching this team do well and not being able to contribute," said Kaepernick, more recognized before his promotion for his collection of tattoos than for his strong arm and sprinter's speed. "For me, what kept me going was the fact that I might get an opportunity to get out there. When I did, I needed to take advantage of it."

The 49ers hope to take advantage in the same Superdome where they were at their most dominant, beating Denver 55-10 in 1990 in the biggest rout the Super Bowl has seen.

The Steelers are recognized as the true powerhouse of the Super Bowl era, which is nearly a half-century old. Four of those titles came in the 1970s, with Mean Joe Greene and the Steel Curtain shutting down opponents while Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Lynn Swann were scoring on them.

But the last two were in 2005 and 2008, and they've been perennial playoff qualifiers, too. That kept them in the football forefront.

For the 49ers the golden years of Montana, Rice, Young and Ronnie Lott ended with the 1994 season. They didn't even make the playoffs from 2003-10, and this is their first trip back to the Super Bowl.

Rice sees Super Bowl win No. 6 coming Sunday.

"We had players who played well in the big game," he said. "My best football that I played happened in the playoffs and in the Super Bowl. It's the same with these players."

None of whom, except for center Jonathan Goodwin and linebacker Clark Haggans, has won a title. That's still one more ring than the Ravens have: Lewis is the sole NFL champion in Baltimore.

Lewis hungers for these teammates to taste their first title — and to do it in his last game.

"I've touched the Lombardi (Trophy), and I know how it feels," the perennial All-Pro said. "For these guys who've made this journey with me to feel that, it would be the perfect ending for my career."

Like Lewis, 49ers receiver Randy Moss also could be suiting up for the final time, although he hopes to play another year.

Grabbed off the scrap heap after his career spiraled into oblivion and no team would touch him in 2011, Moss didn't do much on the field (28 catches, 434 yards) this season. His loudest headlines came this week when he proclaimed himself the greatest receiver ever; maybe he's never seen Rice's numbers.

Teammates say Moss was very influential as a mentor and teacher.

"Randy's like my older brother," said Michael Crabtree, who emerged as a top receiver in his fourth pro season. "An older brother you would have that's been through a lot that you just can learn from just talking to him, watching him.

"He's a legend and I hope he'll be here next year."

Lewis won't be. He'll don the face paint, put on his No. 52 for the final time, and see if he can replicate the championship of a dozen years ago.

"You can never top the first one, because that's an unknown feeling," Lewis said before adding with a chuckle, eyes widening, "but a second one — that might be the only way you really can top it."

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Offensive, defensive and rookie of the year awards for Ravens' 2017 season

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USA Today Sports

Offensive, defensive and rookie of the year awards for Ravens' 2017 season

The Ravens' season had it's ups and down, but out of it came some bright spots.

The defense continued to prove dominate and the offense found its groove during the second half of the season, but who stood out the most?

Offensive MVP: RB Alex Collins

Collins was a late preseason pickup after being cut by the Seattle Seahawks and Ravens fans are grateful they let him go. After new acquisition Danny Woodhead injured his hamstring on the first drive in Week 1 and Terrance West injured his calf Week 5 in Oakland, Allen emerged as a saving grace. He finished the season with 973 yards, six touchdowns and 212 attempts averaging 4.6 yards-per-carry. His longest rushing attempt was 50-yards against the Steelers in Week 4, and then in Week 14, rushed 120-yards on their defense. 

RELATED: RAVENS' 2018 NFL MOCK DRAFT ROUNDUP

Defensive MVP: OLB Terrell Suggs

This one was a toss up between Suggs and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, but considering the level at which Sizzle is playing at in his 15th season, his 2017 performance is MVP worthy.

The 35-year old finished the season with 49 combined tackles, 12 assist, 11 sacks and four forced fumbles. Suggs ranks 11th in the league in sacks and was voted to his seventh Pro Bowl, something that should be expected from the leader of a defense that finished the regular season ranked sixth in points allowed. During the Ravens' Week 12 matchup, Suggs proved he doesn't age when he strip sacked Texans QB Tom Savage with 4:44 remaining in the fourth, shifting the momentum back to the Ravens who were clinging on to a 23-16 win. He's suffered two Achilles tears and a torn bicep over the last 5.5 seasons but has remained Hall of Fame worthy. As of right now, T-Sizzle has no plans of retiring. 

RELATED: FIVE OFFSEASON QUESTIONS RAVENS MUST ANSWER

Rookie of the Year: CB Marlon Humphrey

The Ravens' 2017 first-round pick stepped up to the plate when starting CB Jimmy Smith's season was over after suffering a torn Achilles in Week 13. The rookie out of Alabama finished the season with 34 combined tackles, four assists and two interceptions. Pro Football Focus graded Humphrey the fifth-best cover corner in the league. QBs only had a 53.5 rating when they threw in his direction. PFF also gave Humphrey a 82.7 rookie rating. 

Humphrey will continue to prove his worth during the 2018 season if Jimmy Smith is still recovering come Week 1.

RELATED: IMPORTANT 2018 OFFSEASON DATES

Special Teams MVP: P Sam Koch

Koch is in his 12th season with the Ravens and he's continuing to prove how efficient that leg of his is. He had a season long of 67-yards and placed 40 of 84 punts inside the 20-yard line. Koch's accuracy earned him AFC special teams player of the week not once, but twice this season. The first came in Week 12 against the Houston Texans when he not only placed five punts inside the 20-yard line, but also faked a punt and threw a 22-yard pass to Chris Moore for a first down. The second honor came in Week 15 against the Cleveland Browns after placing four punts inside the 20-yard line, three of them inside the five. While neither Koch or kicker Justin Tucker were named to the Pro Bowl, Ravens fans never break a sweat when the game is in their hands, or should we say, legs.

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Important 2018 offseason dates for Baltimore Ravens

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USA Today Sports

Important 2018 offseason dates for Baltimore Ravens

Mark your calendars now because the Ravens are already gearing up for their 2018 season.

From the Pro-Bowl all the way to the start of the regular season, here are the key dates.

January 28th: Pro Bowl, Orlando, Fla. 

Safety Eric Weddle, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley will all be in attendance. In addition, Suggs and Weddle were named starters. The game will take place at Camping World Stadium. Kickoff is at 3:00 p.m. ET on ABC and ESPN.

February 3rd: Pro Football Hall of Fame 2018 Class announced

This will be a very important day for Ray Lewis and the Ravens organization as Lewis waits to here if he will be sealed into football history, one day prior to Super Bowl LII. 

February 5th: Waiver system takes effect

The waiver system allows players' contracts or a club's NFL rights to a player available to other clubs in the league. Upon doing this, the other 31 teams can place a claim to obtain him or waive their chance. During this 24- hour period, once a club waives a player it can not take the player back or change his status. Assignments are based upon draft order until the third week of the regular season. If a player does not get claimed, he becomes a free agent. 

February 20th:  First day to franchise or transition tag a player

February 27th- March 5th: NFL Scouting Combine, Indianapolis, IN

This seven day period will be crucial for General Manager Ozzie Newsome to get a good look at potential Ravens.

March 6th: Deadline to franchise or transition tag a player

March 12-14th: Teams are allowed to contact and negotiate with agents of players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents

March 14th: Start of new league year at 4:00 p.m. ET

At this time, all 2017 player contracts expire meaning teams can begin seeking and signing free agents. Ravens free agents include Mike Wallace, Benjamin Watson, Ryan Jensen, Terrance West, James Hurst, Michael Campanaro, Steven Johnson, Ryan Mallet, Brandon Boykin, Crockett Gillmore, Brent Urban and Luke Bowanko.

March 25-28th: Owners Meeting, Orlando, FL

April 16th: Voluntary OTA's can begin

April 20th: Deadline for restricted FA's to sign offer sheets

April 26th-28th: 2018 NFL Draft, Arlington, TX

The Ravens will be heading down to Arlington, Texas in hopes of picking up their next franchise player. Positions needed include wide receiver, tight end, quarterback and outside linebacker.

May 4-7th or 11-14th: Potential three-day rookie minicamp

May 31-June 2nd: Ravens Beach Bash, Ocean City, MD

July 16th: Deadline to get long-term deal done with designated franchise tag player 

Mid-Late July: Training camp begins

August 2nd: Hall of Fame Game, Canton, OH

August 4th: Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, Canton, OH

Again, keep this date marked as it could be the day Ray Lewis is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

September 6th: Start of regular season